Perhaps I’m turning into a bit of a softy, but I just adored this movie. Bought into it from the opening moments, and stayed riveted the full two hours. I think this movie casts a gorgeous, view-the-world-differently spell, one I was blissfully happy to stay under throughout. The friend I was with said it even took him a few minutes to re-orient himself to the real world when we left the theatre, so powerful was the alternate one in which del Toro had placed us.
I GUESS THERE MIGHT BE SPOILERS, THOUGH I WON’T AIM FOR ANY
The film struck me as something Spielberg might have made in his early heyday -- only minus the limited-to-childhood point-of-view. However gloriously entertaining they were, ET and other Spielberg efforts of the time very much took place in a hermetically-sealed world, where adult problems seemed light-years away; this was the reason Spielberg had difficulty being take seriously by many critics. He was probably incapable of portraying ET in a human relationship with anyone but a pre-adolescent in a sunny Southern California suburb. del Toro, by contrast, places his creature in a world of violence, cruel politics and torture-- and into a relationship with a grown, clearly sexual woman. In The Shape of Water, the grown-up world doesn’t seem so far off -- even though its issues are consistently filtered through fantasy/fairytale elements that please the senses (and make it all go down easy), the realities of life are out there and ready to intrude at any moment.
In that sense, I’m a bit surprised BJ had such issues with the story/screenplay. I wouldn’t argue the film’s script is the year’s best – Three Billboards and Lady Bird are, for me, clearly the class of those I’ve seen so far. But I’m not dismissive of Del Toro’s work here at all -- it would never have crossed my mind to cite the deficient Crimson Peak, even just say “well, this is better than that”. I think the script here is precisely what this particular film requires. It occurred to me the film has something like spiritual kinship with Far from Heaven – another movie that’s more a directorial triumph but not a screenwriting shortfall. Both films’ stories clearly mimic a Cold war era genre (women’s weeper, monster sci-fi), heighten it with deep, richly colored cinematography and lush romantic music, then blend into the narrative real-world issues from the time that went unacknowledged in the original films -- in this case, bullying/sexual harassment, rabid anti-Communism, casual racism, and, throughout, toxic masculinity…something that could hardly seem more timely at this moment.
I see the characters in The Shape of Water as not cliches, but archetypes from the movies of the era – archetypes who are then fleshed out with individual quirks that make them more than quick summaries would suggest. Shannon’s Strickland is a hard-ass, tunnel-vision bureaucrat, but his desperate need to convince himself his life has amounted to more than he deep down suspects is weirdly touching. Similarly, Spencer’s sassy sidekick Zelda is a familiar role (one she’s made a career of), but her relationship with her husband – conveyed along the way in throwaway dialogue, then ultimately in a confrontation – gives her fuller dimension. Jenkins’ Giles is a character who might not have appeared in a movie of the era (certainly not specifically identified as gay), but he’s more than “platonic best friend” – he has very specific traits, like an inability to fight hard enough for his job, simple vanity over losing his hair, and an off-center, self-deprecating sense of humor. As for Hawkins’ Elisa – she’s the film’s most original character. She’s handicapped in a way that she tells us makes her feel conspicuous, but at the same time she’s not reticent – in her first encounter with the creature, she boldly puts her hand to the glass, and moves ahead quickly from there. She’s headstrong, not one to be talked out of something once she’s set her mind to it -- things that run counter to the poor-waif persona suggested by her outward appearance. Above all, she’s unafraid – and thus a perfect heroine for this time and place.
Orchestrating all these characters, and the tight thriller plot, is del Toro, the film’s biggest star. I’d say no other film this year shows as clear a director’s hand as this – every image, every acting moment, every musical cue seems perfectly chosen to achieve del Toro’s vision. His is a generous but also clear-eyed view – giving the audience rapturous moments it wants (like the “You’ll Never Know” interlude, and the finale), but not shrinking from those more horrifying (like Shannon’s digital issues, or Stuhlbarg’s final fate). And have I mentioned the film is just a sensual feast? Green has never looked so gorgeous as it does in this film – whether in the drab workplace, the movie palace, or Elisa’s apartment. I wouldn’t have thought any film this year could approach Blade Runner for visual appeal, but Shape of Water challenges it for both cinematography and design. del Toro makes us see his world as a thing of beauty, even when the things in it are harsh.
He’s aided in this by an excellent cast, full of wonderful actors. Sally Hawkins is of course the best. Playing a mute has long been an actor’s feast, but Hawkins brings something special to it: a glow that projects innocence, but an innocence tempered with practicality and self-possession. I wonder if I’m thinking of the same moment BJ is, what he suggests will be her awards clip. If I am, I’ll suggest that the moment feels as potent as it does because del Toro has her tell Jenkins to translate, eliminating the subtitles from the screen for once, so she conveys everything through an unimpeded look at her face and hands. It’s the high point of a thoroughly fine performance. (I’ve now seen Hawkins, Ronan and McDormand’s performances, and can honestly say, if any of the three win this year’s best actress prize, I can’t complain.) Michael Shannon and Octavia Spencer play roles that are right in their wheelhouses, but they still manage to find new colors at times. (If Spencer’s nominated for this – a solid possibility – she will be far more deserving than last year.) Michael Stuhlbarg does a nice job of masking his intentions throughout, as his loyalties/plans keep shifting. But my favorite of the supporting cast is Richard Jenkins, who has one of the best roles of his life. It’s the sort of role that often gets Oscar nominations, and I hope the glut in the category doesn’t keep him out.
I think the film has a decent chance of leading this year’s nominations. Film/actress/director seem highly likely, with multiple below-the-line nominations (cinematography, production design, score) also assured. Screenplay is questionable only because of the depth of the field; I’m guessing the film will take a forward position in the overall race, and place on that basis. Spencer, Jenkins and Shannon all have at least a shot. And sound/editing/sound editing are possible. As far as wins…it’s way too early to say, but the film is definitely in the hunt.
Trivia: If Hawkins should win best actress, she will be the second such winner to have Alice Faye’s “You’ll Never Know” play on her film’s soundtrack. Surely most people here can quickly name the other.