Among his many sins, Harvey Weinstein is to be blamed for turning awards season into a marketing frenzy where victory almost always goes, not necessarily to the best, but to the noisiest and most relentless of campaigners. How can art be judged objectively anyway? Weinstein is finally getting his just deserts but his awards season legacy has been trickier to erase.
After the Oscar nominations were announced in January, The Shape of Water, a curious, old school style, yet forward looking fairytale fantasy about a mute lady and her scaled creature lover racked up the highest nominations. No one was surprised.
Unveiled at the Venice Film Festival where it won the Golden Lion, the festival’s highest prize, The Shape of Water, the tenth feature length film by visual maestro Guillermo Del Toro was warmly received by critics and movie buffs. Filmed as an ode to B-movies from the fifties with a stellar cast of British and American thespians, The Shape of Water was instantly anointed an Oscar front runner. Barring any unforeseen incident lurking somewhere, it would finish as such. The campaign kicked off.
There is a certain cynicism that comes with movies declared by an exclusive group of people as Oscar front runners. That a film is ‘’the best’’ only because a certain group of elite people have declared it so comes with its own set of problems. Del Toro’s The Shape of Water is hugely optimistic, and technically accomplished enough to bypass any cynicism that its Oscar front runner status is likely to attract. Removed from awards season consideration, the film is impressive enough to stand the test of time.
In Baltimore, in the early 1960’s, a mute orphan, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) spends her days in a crumbling apartment which she shares with her neighbor, Giles, a sensitive but failing artist played by Richard Jenkins. At night Elisa reports for duty at a government research laboratory where she works as a cleaner.
It is the middle of the cold war and in the midst of all the political uncertainty, a strange amphibian creature designated ‘’The Asset’’ is hauled into the lab where Elisa and her best buddy, Zelda (Octavia Spencer) work. A warm connection immediately develops between Elisa and this creature (Doug Jones, covered up in impressive prosthetics) and they share stolen moments where she brings him hard-boiled eggs and they communicate through old music records.
These moments are threatened when the sneering, abusive government personnel posted to oversee the operation involving ‘’The Asset’’, Richard Strickland- played by a reliably villainous Michael Shannon- becomes obsessed with vivisecting the creature so as to prevent the Russians from getting their clutches on it. Elisa and her band of allies- including Zelda, Giles and a Russian spy played by Michael Stuhlbarg- now have to do everything humanly possible to prevent or at least, delay doomsday.
The Shape of Water may have been set in the sixties, but the tensions created are woke enough to be relevant in today’s world. Bigotry, racism, and homophobia suffuse the scenes generously but Del Toro’s film isn’t a bleak one. It also has a generously optimistic outlook, one that is rendered in bright green colors supplied by the gorgeous cinematography of Dan Laustsen. The experience, especially the water scenes are completely immersive and linger on past the closing credits.
The actors led by Sally Hawkins are all in excellent form, inspired by the grand vision of Guillermo Del Toro. Hawkins is in career best form, giving plenty of herself through expressive eyes, graceful limb movements and a quiet passion. Jenkins and Spencer who alongside Ms Hawkins scored acting Oscar nominations are supporting players who for a change, have a lot to do and are intrinsically merged to the story, providing not just comic relief, but also dramatic and emotional intensity.
Del Toro is able to achieve the improbable task of convincing his audience of the validity of a union between man and monster by spinning the central characters as yet another set of outsiders trying to get by in a world that has little use for people who do not blend in. They share this similarity with the other supporting characters, even Shannon’s self-possessed villain. Before long, any inhibitions quickly fade away and the romance between Elisa comes across as pure and right and not at all weird.
To fully enjoy The Shape of Water is to surrender completely to Del Toro’s gorgeously rendered world even as he hides under the cover of artistic license to get away with some improbabilities. Like a character slipping towels under a door to prevent water from spilling into the next room.
The Shape of Water is many things at the same time. It is a hopelessly romantic journey, a fanboy’s reinterpretation of noir films that inspired him, a tense action/monster movie and for the briefest of scenes, a breezy musical. It is a testament to Del Toro’s technical mastery that he is able to navigate through all these mazes and emerge with an uncluttered and gripping final product.