Friday, December 1, 2017

OSCAR WATCH: The Shape of Water

Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has a unique gift of transporting us to fantasy worlds that are not far from our own. In 2006, he created such a masterpiece with "Pan's Labyrinth", exploring the darkness of Spain's Franco-era fascism. With "The Shape of Water" he's done it again, turning his lens towards an original fairytale set in 1960s Baltimore.

"The Shape of Water" stars Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a kindhearted woman who has been mute since she was very young. She lives above a grand movie theater called the Orpheum, spending much of her spare time with her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins). During the nights however, she diligently clocks in for a mundane job as a janitor at a research facility. One day, her life gets a jolt of excitement however, as a mysterious "asset" arrives at her workplace. Her curiosity leads her to discover that there is a humanoid sea creature being held captive. Sneaking in to interact with this fascinating being, Elisa and creature soon strike up an unlikely friendship that deepens to something more. But external forces - namely the cruel boss Colonel Richard Strickland - threaten to keep them apart.

With a voice-over narration that bookends the film, "The Shape of Water" immediately signals its "once upon a time" storybook premise. Indeed, Elisa is referred to as "the princess without a voice." Her life is far from perfect however. She doesn't live in a castle and isn't placed on a pedestal for her beauty.

As you can imagine, del Toro instead uses her speech impediment to make a parable about tolerance. But this inspired tale (sure to be in the mix for Best Original Screenplay) casts the net even wider, using the atmosphere of the pre-civil rights and Cold War era to comment on racism, homophobia and in the case of the monster, a lack of humanity towards other species.

In doing so, the script establishes some easily identifiable archetypes alongside our outcast protagonist with her heart of gold.The chatty black friend (played by Octavia Spencer), the evil bureaucrat (played by Michael Shannon), the kind scientist (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) and the middle-aged man who is despairingly lonely and gay. Among them, the latter is the most fully realized character, allowing Richard Jenkins to convey his insecurities and motivations. In addition to the more obvious choices of Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer in Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, Jenkins could definitely become a contender for Best Supporting Actor.

But even though the character development is somewhat lacking, del Toro more than makes up for it with his astounding visual and sound design. The wondrous art direction (largely rendered in a striking teal color palette) is arguably the best of the year, while cinematographer Dan Laustsen captures some unforgettable moments. I dare you not to be utterly enchanted by the underwater shots of Elisa and her Amphibian Man in a loving embrace. And composer Alexandre Desplat produces some of his best work with a whimsical score. The film should therefore be a shoo-in for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Visual Effects and Best Original Score nods.

"The Shape of Water" is undeniably a fairy tale for adults. That's evident in its unflinching depiction of violence and gore, as well a brazen sexuality that is jarring at times. But underneath it all, this is a gorgeous romance that will have you feeling like a child again, hoping for a "happily ever after" for its star-crossed lovers.

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