Eating disorders have become a popular but often controversial subject for film and TV. Netflix brought their drama To The Bone onto our screens and in doing so attracted complaints, bad reviews, and backlash. Now it’s BBC 3’s turn with their take on anorexia, Overshadowed.
BBC Three’s drama series follows the life of aspiring YouTuber and teenager Imogene (Michelle Fox) who takes to documenting her life and new lifestyle.
The series is made up of eight 10-minute-long, YouTube-style confessional videos. It was a clever choice to mimic the setup of YouTube’s videos, allowing the series to reflect how today’s teenagers watch content and interact with it, sharing on social media and presenting their “best selves” for all to see.
The shambolic camera work gives the series a hyper-real quality. However I can’t help but think if these videos were shot, edited and published by Imogene she would have cut out some of the more hysterical moments from her vlog. She most definitely gave an authentic performance, but the same can’t be said for the narrative’s execution.
Michelle Fox is a fierce, up-and-coming talent with an incredibly expressive face who has undeniable chemistry with her on-screen sister – played by Emma Willis – who gives a heart-breaking performance of someone who is trying to reach out to someone suffering such a destructive illness, and ultimately someone she loves.
We first meet sixth-former Imogene who is full of spirit, hope, and excitement. New camera in hand, she documents her home life and the first day of her new “healthy lifestyle” journey. Her carefree running around the shopping centre with her sister quickly moves to her manically forcing herself to exercise in her room and skipping meals.
Imogene’s life and body begin to deteriorate while her demons take on human form, always close at hand.
Overshadowed is based on the stage play of the same name written by Eva O’Connor, who suffered with anorexia herself. Penned in 2014, the play debuted as part of the arts/mental health festival First Fortnight in Dublin. Once a performance of her first-hand experience, O’Connor now plays the personification of anorexia – the crudely-named Anna.
Anna is the biggest advocate for Imogene’s new lifestyle, a sinister cheerleader. Her presence grows and becomes stronger as Imogene deteriorates, progressing from small hisses in her ear, chastising Imogene when she eats “badly”, screaming at her and her friends. But she can only be seen and heard by Imogene.
I felt O’Connor’s performance was too much. I was anticipating a presence which was at first tempting, comforting, flirtatious almost. Instead I felt she leant too far on playing the devil on the shoulder. Although I wasn’t a huge fan of the performance I imagine it was an incredibly empowering experience to play the monster that once whispered in her own ear.
The series was produced by Rollem, the production company set up by Kay Mellor who with her work on Fat Friends exhibits an interest in body image through her work.
What makes the series differ from the other eating disorder is that this portrayal exposes the viewer to the effects anorexia has on Imogene’s relationships with her family, friends, and potential boyfriend, rather than just the physical side effects of eating disorders. The strain of her anorexia is clearly visible on her physical wellbeing but instead of falling prey to the issues that have previously plagued anorexia dramas, Fox didn’t lose weight for her role. The progression of her disease was instead highlighted by clever choices in make-up and wardrobe.
The use of the YouTube-style videos is especially clever when you realise that although Imogene is choosing to share her life with her audience, her audience is seeing more of her life than she does. One of the sadder scenes shows Imogene and Anna talking into the webcam of Imogene’s laptop, cattily responding to viewer’s comments of Imogene’s change in attitude and offerings of support and help.
Whilst the drama predominantly centres around Imogene’s battle with anorexia, it is also important to note that is a coming-of-age drama. We go through key milestones with Imogene: her first boyfriend, her first experience of drugs, the aftermath of her father’s affair and the ultimate divorce between her parents, moments which earmark many a seventeen-year-old’s life. Only in Imogene’s case, Anna isolates her from this, amplifying things further.
Overshadowed tackles a serious topic which would be a hard challenge for any television programme, let alone an online platform portraying the story through a series of vlogs – a relatively new and brave format to adopt for such serious subject matter.Ultimately, Overshadowed and its cast do an admirable job in tackling such a dark but all-too-familiar story but I feel it didn’t quite work – their take-home message being that a person is not defined by their eating disorder. Imogene is one person, Anna another.
Contributed Elise Gallagher