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.


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.

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.