Friday, February 23, 2018

Review of THE SHAPE OF WATER: Comfort from a Creature

February 22, 2018

This was the film I was most excited to see for this Oscar season. "The Shape of Water" led all contenders for the Oscar with 13 nominations in the following categories: Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay, Original Score, Costume Design, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Film Editing and Cinematography. Critics Choice gave it 14 nominations. BAFTA gave it 12. Definitely, this is a must-see film.

It was the early 1960s in Baltimore. Elisa Esposito was a janitor at a government research laboratory. She was mute because of a neck injury she sustained as a child. She led a lonely life, with only her two close friends: Giles (an old gentleman who lived next door) and Zelda (her outspoken co-worker). One day, Col. Richard Strickland brought to the lab a humanoid water creature captured from a river in South America. Saddened by the harsh treatment it got from Strickland, Elisa formed a friendship with the creature, a bond that eventually developed into love. 

Director Guillermo del Toro had long been associated with creature or monster films, like  "Hellboy" (2004), "Pan's Labyrinth" (2006) and animated TV series "Trollhunters" (2016). "Pan's Labyrinth" was del Toro's first brush with Oscar, when it was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film as well as Best Original Screenplay. He won neither back then, but this year he is poised to win the big prize. For "The Shape of Water," Del Toro had already won Best Director at the Golden Globes, BAFTA, Critics Choice and the Director's Guild. The Oscar is clearly not far behind. 

The original score by Alexandre Desplat had already won in the Golden Globes and the Hollywood Music in Media awards. The nostalgic score set the tone effectively for a storybook romance, encouraging the audience only to see the beautiful in the female human - male fish creature relationship we see on the screen, dispelling any hint of disgust which may interfere with that image of pure love. The use of vintage love songs in the soundtrack likewise worked to achieve this idyllic atmosphere. 

Sally Hawkins had an innocent type of beauty which worked to her favor as the lonely and vulnerable Elisa. Her inability to speak made her role more challenging by forcing her to rely more on facial expressions and sign/body language alone to get her emotions across. She did enough to deserve an Oscar nomination. It certainly was not easy to create romantic chemistry with a likewise mute green amphibious creature (played by del Toro staple actor Doug Jones in a prosthetic body suit) like sweet Hawkins gloriously did here. 

The actors who played her two close friends also get nominated for Oscars in their supporting roles. Richard Jenkins owned his meaty role as Giles, Elisa's fellow lonely soul who loved cats, art, old movies, and pies. Octavia Spencer did not have much to do except to be Elisa's literally supportive friend Zelda. One would wonder what Oscar spell she cast to nab her third nomination for an unremarkable role as this one. Her previous nominations for "The Help" (2011, for which she won) and "Hidden Figures" (2016) were more deserved than this one. 

Michael Shannon played the alpha-male Colonel Strickland, who had a disturbing streak of violence in him. Michael Stuhlbarg marked a great year in his career last year by having been cast in three films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.  Fans loved his role as Elio's supportive father in "Call Me By Your Name." He played a New York Times editor in "The Post." He had a marked role in "The Shape of Water" as Dr. Hoffstetler, a scientist with an ulterior motive and a desire to keep the asset alive. The Cold War espionage aspect gave the story more grit, but I thought those scenes of explicit violence did not fit right. 

However, I just wished del Toro could have just kept to the wholesome fairy tale spirit of this tale, without the Rated R sex. In the beginning montage alone depicting Elisa's daily routine, there was an unexpected scene of Hawkins fully nude, then later getting herself off in the bathtub. Even Strickland's wife showed her breasts before a brutish bed scene. I did not really see why del Toro had to be so frank about sex at all. Was it to give a different spin from "Beauty and the Beast" whose basic plot it shared? The film would have had a more widespread appeal without them. 

Being the film with the most number of nominations, will "The Shape of Water" go all the way and win the Oscar for Best Picture? It won "The Golden Lion" at the 2017 Venice Film Festival where it debuted. It won the Critics Choice award for Best Picture. It also won the Producers Guild award for Best Theatrical Motion Picture. Best Director may already be a lock for Guillermo del Toro, but I am betting that another film will win Best Picture. 6/10. 

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