Lucy Brydon’s arresting feature debut Body of Water is remarkable not only for the level of filmmaking craft and storytelling it showcases from this first-time writer-director, but also for its striking protagonist.
Stephanie (played by Sian Brooke) is a thirtysomething professional war photographer and single mother who suffers from anorexia, an illness that cinema usually reserves for teenage girls. For Brydon, who has previously written and directed short films – such as Babe (2013), which similarly deals with a young woman’s relationship with her body – the cultural conversation around eating disorders was something she was determined to tackle head on.
Drawing from her own experiences, and those of friends and family, Brydon initially penned a short film script, but, after meeting producer Dan Cleland at the Edinburgh Film Festival, decided to submit the project to Film London’s Microwave development scheme as a feature. After 2 years of honing the screenplay, the film was chosen to be taken into production, and shooting began in early 2018.
Through all those years of development, Brydon remained fixed on her goal of presenting a clear-eyed and realistic view of the damage that anorexia can cause not just to the sufferer but also to those who love them. “We always made sure that we were very respectful of the character, but also gave a sense of the loneliness of living with this thing,” says Brydon, when we speak ahead of the film’s UK opening.
“I also felt it was important that [Stephanie] was outwardly a successful person. She has done this really amazing job, war photography. I’ve read a lot about war photographers, who have done all these incredible things in extreme circumstances. But when they come back to reality in their own lives, they haven’t been able to cope. A lot of them have problems with drug addiction and alcoholism. And I feel that there’s a lot of cinema devoted to those kinds of addictive behaviours, but anorexia is a similar thing.
“I was also interested in the other generations of women that have felt the ripple effects of her experiences,” continues Brydon of the film’s other key characters, Stephanie’s long-suffering mother Susan (a raw Amanda Burton) and teenage daughter Pearl (newcomer Fabienne Piolini-Castle), both of whom are becoming increasingly estranged from Stephanie because they can no longer cope with her illness. While Stephanie is determined to reconnect with her family following her latest stint in a rehab facility, and desperate to stop Pearl from developing a similarly toxic relationship with food, she finds it impossible to manage her anorexia without their support.
“I did a lot of research,” says Brydon about the importance of nailing this family dynamic under duress. “I interviewed a lot of people who had anorexia, a couple of whom were in their 40s. The one thing that helped push forward this character’s back story was going to a clinic in Norwich where I met this woman who was around my age, early 30s at the time. She had been in and out of institutions since she was 16, because some boyfriend had told her she was fat. And her whole life was about being in the clinic, getting heavy enough to leave and go back to her mum’s, and then getting back into the same habits and being readmitted. I began to look into how difficult it is for people coming out of treatment, how little is actually done to support them.”
Crucial to Brydon’s authentic approach was her determination not to glamourise or fetishise Stephanie’s illness – even though we do witness Stephanie herself visiting pro-anorexia websites, where images of her frail body bring positive affirmations and acceptance at direct odds with the judgement cast by her family.
“It was a constant source of conversation throughout development,” says Brydon, of how the film would frame Stephanie’s physical appearance. Collaborating closely with Brooke – who, says Brydon, has said that “she was scared of reading the script to begin with, because she knew what it would involve if she fell in love with the project” – the director carefully and sensitively highlights Stephanie’s decreasing weight without ever losing sight of the physical and emotional damage wrought by this terrible disease.
Brooke worked closely with a nutritionist and trainer on a “physically demanding” routine to transform her body for the shoot, although not to dangerous levels; too-big clothes and a focus on specific areas, such as her neck or joints, were all part of the illusion. “I didn’t want it to be glamorous,” Brydon says. “We are presented with images of emaciated women on a daily basis, so we all know what it looks like. For me, it was about the psychology of it, and the toll of living with it on a daily basis. There’s quite a lot of repetition in the film, visually, which gives an underlying link to Stephanie’s OCD and compulsive behaviours. And as the film progresses, the framing gets weirder and some sequences take on a really uncomfortable tone.”
Indeed, Stephanie’s psychological journey can be plotted through 3 key sequences in the film, in which we observe her eating, alone, at her dimly lit dining table. Early on, she manages a decent meal soon after leaving rehab. Later, she struggles to force down slices of apple. And, finally, we witness as she silently gorges herself on party leftovers, a moving, uncomfortably long orgy of utter desperation.
“Everyone was on tenterhooks about [that sequence], because we knew how powerful it could be,” says Brydon of that climactic feast. “It was one of the first scenes we shot, and Sian’s body had got used to not having much food. You could see how ravenous she was. There’s something really animalistic about it. We did a second take and, because she had sated her appetite, there was something more controlled, it was more like a performance. So we kept the first one. It’s just so intense. You want to look away, but you can’t.”
That’s true of the whole of Body of Water, an unflinching portrait of a woman losing herself to her demons that’s difficult to watch but demands your attention. “There may be some people who see the films as having a negative message,” Brydon muses. “But I don’t see it like that. I see it as having a realistic message.
“I personally love those kinds of films that go deep, that really look at the difficult sides of being a human being,” she continues. “So I know there’s an audience for this film. And I hope that people come away with compassion for this issue. It’s one that’s often written off as something that happens to teenage girls, and you get over it by your 30s or 40s and everything is fine.
“I want to show that there’s so many more layers to it, in a compassionate way. Anorexia is insidious, it gets its fingers into all of your relationships. That is something that we need to talk about, and I hope the film goes some way to opening up the discussion.”
- Body of Water, backed by the BFI Film Fund using National Lottery money, is in cinemas and on BFI Player from 16 October 2020