The Shape of Water: an unconventional love story… or is it?

I was first in the queue to see The Shape of Water. Within 30 seconds of tickets being released for the preview at London’s BFI, I was entering my card details – and feeling extremely smug.

I missed the premiere in Venice (unfortunately the day I was there meant Clooney’s Suburbicon was the only film on offer), and so was anxious to see what I assumed from the reviews was a powerful, life affirming cultural intervention into the cinematic landscape.

Oh.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of lovely elements to the film (the score, the friendships, the production design..). But take away the water, and the gills, and what remains?

Let’s unpack the plot…

  • Woman is ‘alone’/ invisible to society.
  • There is a man shaped hole in her life (“I am incomplete”).
  • Cue man. He’s not conventional but he’s a hunk of sorts. He definitely doesn’t disappoint.
  • Woman’s life now has meaning. Her existence is validated.
  • Woman is whole. Dead but whole. (Indeed, throughout cinematic and literary history, female characters are punished by death for expressing sexuality outside the realms of domestic / patriarchal structures).

What’s more, the fish man himself ultimately conforms to physical expectations (is this the real threat?). It could be said that the emphasis on his physical power and ability to ‘satisfy’ Eliza tramples over the more subtle and nuanced aspects of his character. The result? The threat/success of the fish man is defined by toxic masculine standards – he is a worthy challenger to the film’s alpha male.

Next time we see films described as unconventional – let’s make sure the characters defy convention. Let’s allow men not to be defined by toxic male standards. And let’s allow women to exist in their own right as human beings, without being defined by their relationship to men.

The audience: passive observers or something more sinister?

As someone who has been known to moonlight as a director of theatre, I know what it’s like to work on a play in an intense close-knit environment, before the work is revealed to the mass unknown body known as ‘the audience’. As a director it can be dangerous to think about this anonymous group during the creative process. As David Bowie said:

“The couple of times where I’ve remotely tried to take an audience into consideration, the work itself has been utterly a washout”.    ~ David Bowie, Dazed, 1995

Cut to curtain up, and this vast beast can take on a life of its own. It reacts differently each night, is disconcertingly unpredictable in nature, yet almost always acts as one entity. They might be a thoroughly engaged joy, or laugh uncontrollably at the joke you thought was the least funny, or simply just-not-get the bit you thought was perfectly crafted genius.

As a frequent audience member myself, the dark and cosy world of the stalls can often be a sinister and alienating place. It is a strange feeling being at odds with an audience. One of the first times I felt uncomfortable was during Posh at the Royal Court. I soon became aware that the jovial, glittering faces to my left and right were laughing along with the more vile views of the characters on the stage. I sat, silently outraged, torn between my appreciation of the brilliant cast and direction, and contempt for those around me. When I think of that play, I remember that experience.

Recently, I was lucky enough to acquire tickets to Les Liaisons Dangereuses at the Donmar. Things were ticking along nicely until a particularly dark moment.  For those who don’t know the play the ‘seduction’ scene or, what I would prefer to call the serious sexual assault scene, is where we see Valmont (older man) creep into the bedroom of the young and innocent 15 year old Cecile, to rape her. For some reason, although not played for laughs, a large portion of the audience erupted in guffawing laughter – and not the usual kind of uncomfortable awkward laughter one might expect. Suddenly I had the strong sensation some of the people around me potentially held very questionable views. The kind of views which quite frankly wouldn’t pass outside the jolly candle-lit world of the stage.

Overshadowing the production, I was flung out of the spell cast on stage. It led me to ask myself the following question: So often we expect our plays to tell us something about society, but is it the audiences who teach us more?

In praise of… Sam Taylor Johnson and intelligent casting

Barely seconds passed after it was announced Sam Taylor-Johnson OBE would direct Fifty Shades of Grey before questions were flung in the Turner-Prize-nominated-artist/photographer/filmmaker’s direction. Would she/could she polish this turd (that the world has devoured)? How far would she go? Would she satisfy the die hard fans of the book? Could she gratify the critics… the smirking, raised eyebrow secret-kindle-readers?

I won’t focus on the scrutiny of a female director before the film was even out the blocks, because I know Sam Taylor-Johnson has knocked it out of the park – and I haven’t even seen the film.

In a recent interview with the Guardian, on discussing the complexity of finding strength of character in the apparently submissive Anastasia, Taylor-Johnson said:

I thought, if we can take this girl on a journey, where we empower her and don’t leave her as a victim, that’s job done […] I think it was Elisabeth Shue who said that if you start a movie with a woman seen through a man’s eyes, that woman is objectified by him throughout. So we deliberately don’t start that way. We start with Anastasia coming into his world and grappling with it – so she’s an autonomous person.”

Taylor-Johnson is highlighting the issue with so many onscreen characters written for women. Take Drive, one of my favourite films. Gosling’s performance is the equivalent of painting the blank canvas of our minds with a rainbow of colours. He defines the Driver before our eyes. Carey Mulligan’s character on the other hand (which imdb tells me is called Irene – strangely this didn’t imprint on my mind), is presented to us via the Driver’s gaze… a poor struggling mum, looking for a knight-in-shining-armour, who, doesn’t say much. Mulligan has commented:

“It was strange, because most of the film I’m just staring at him, and he’s staring at me” – Carey Mulligan on Drive.

That said, the casting of Mulligan elevated a sparse script. It sparked interest, turned a clichéd character on its head and engaged an audience.

Back to Fifty Shades and Taylor-Johnson’s autonomous approach to portraying Anastasia – the person. Nothing helps set the tone and intention of a film more than the cast. Great casting has the power to not only guild a script but find truth and meaning that isn’t always there to begin with. Dakota Johnson looks set to be an inspired choice for Anastasia. It reinforces how important thoughtful, intelligent, creative, thinking-outside-the-box casting is; how it can compel, give life and ask questions beyond the writer’s intentions.

 

Honourable Women

I loved the BBC’s recent Jamaica Inn.

Although a handful of viewers made more noise about adjusting the volume on their remote controls (I had no problems), I was totally engrossed in what was a brilliantly adapted (Emma Frost), fantastically directed (Philippa Lowthorpe) drama with a strong character at its core (wonderfully portrayed by Jessica Brown Findlay).

It struck me that the search for strong and compelling characters – who happen to be women – can take us decades or even hundreds of years into the past.

A quick Google search threw up the following:

Medea, Jane Eyre, Catherine Earnshaw, Beatrice, Lady Macbeth, Portia, Rosalind, Titania, Rebecca, Masha, Hedda Gabler….

What does this tell us? That our predecessors were more tuned-in to the characterisation of women? Is that why the revival of these great women on stage and screen is so frequent?

The dialogue in 2014 about the lack of compelling roles for women is ongoing. However, if we cast a glance towards The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen or Rue or Nessa Stein (brilliantly portrayed by Maggie Gyllenhaal in Hugo Blick’s The Honourable Woman on the BBC) can we can be quietly confident the tide is turning? Optimistic that these modern creations are lining up with those of the past? What do these characters have in common? They are fully formed, real, their stories are compelling – and they happen to be women.