I don’t think any movie has touched my soul (and my tear ducts) quite like Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. To say it’s special does it an injustice. It really is in a class of its own. It won three Academy Awards, for cinematography, art direction and make-up. He may have lost out on screenwriting and best foreign language film, but those wins tell you everything you need to know about a Guillermo del Toro film – visually, they are masterful! Born and raised in Mexico, he studied make-up and special effects under the legendary Dick Smith, known for pioneering new techniques and developing original materials throughout his long career. del Toro spent almost ten years as a make-up supervisor, while also directing and producing Mexican television programs. This experience definitely gives him a unique way of approaching the visual presentation of a film that other directors lack. I know I’m biased, but I just look at the poster for The Shape of Water and I get chills. It is beautiful, ethereal. It is otherworldly, yet not discomforting. Even the supposed monster of the piece is wondrous to look at. When the announcements were made it came as no surprise to me that it lead the Oscar race with thirteen nominations… and this was before I had even seen it.
Set against the backdrop of 1960s Cold War America, The Shape of Water is essentially a love story about a lonely, isolated cleaner who forms a unique relationship with an amphibious creature that is being held captive in the top-secret government research facility where she works. If you’re already shaking your head, going “this shit is too weird for me” please don’t, Elisa (that’s the cleaner’s name) and Amphibian Man (very aptly named) deserve a chance. You see Elisa is an orphan. Also, she’s mute. So, if you walk out now, that’s just discrimination.
Elisa lives a very quaint life above a cinema, according to a very strict routine that somehow has her always arriving late for work. But fortunately for her, she has Zelda, the co-worker from heaven who always squeezes her into the punch-in line. And on shift it doesn’t really matter that Elisa is mute because Zelda does enough talking for the both of them. At home, Zelda’s neighbour Giles is an advertising artist of a bygone era, having been replaced by photography. He enjoys visiting the diner across the street to be served pie, more so to attempt to flirt with the male server than to eat the pie. He is a man caught between two eras – too late for one and too early for the next. But he has a TV and cats and can communicate with Elisa through sign language and the two of them share a special bond that will come in handy when she needs his help to transport an Amphibian Man from a top-secret research facility to her bath tub.
Amphibian Man was brought to the lab from the Amazon, where he was worshipped as a God, by Richard Strickland, a brute of a man, who sees him as nothing more than a monster. After a fair amount of gruesome torture, it is quickly determined he is of no value, beyond what an autopsy might uncover, and his death is scheduled. Elisa, who in a short time has developed a strong bond with him over a mutual appreciation for boiled eggs and an uncanny ability to communicate with each other, knows she must do everything she can to save him. After all, as she explains to Giles, when he looks at her he really sees her, he sees all of her, she feels whole. You can’t argue with that. And so, with the help of her friends and an undercover Russian agent who is defecting (but only sort of) Amphibian Man makes it to her bathtub. But what now?
Richard Strickland, a man whose life is his career has lost major face and will leave no stone unturned to find the creature, or at the very least find those responsible for “the incident”. But who would suspect the lowly cleaners? This is a man so determined to succeed, he won’t even give up on the reattachment of two of his fingers that Amphibian Man previously bit off, even when the reattachment has clearly failed. The flesh is blackened, his family and colleagues are complaining of the smell and still the fingers are there. This is one determined man. And creepy, did I mention creepy? Will he crack the case before the rains fill the canal deep enough for Elisa to release her Amphibian soul mate? Will she have the strength to let him go? Will he have the strength to leave her? The suspense is killing me, and I know what happens…
I cannot heap enough praise on this movie. A single phrase comes to mind: “They don’t make them like this anymore”. When I look at the list of other movies nominated for Best Picture, The Shape of Water is so out of place. It’s a fairytale. It’s visually beautiful to look at. It packs emotional punches but they’re not brutal, they’re precious. Unless you choose to look really hard and be over-sensitive, it has no political agenda and it’s not offensive. It’s extremely weird. Gloriously, stunningly weird. It’s what the world needs right now. A movie you can just watch and enjoy. And for representation sake, there’s a disabled person, a black female and a gay guy. Tick, tick, tick. #justsaying.
I’m really glad it leads the race with the most nominations, but I am under no illusions that it will come away with the most wins. For an actress with no lines, Sally Hawkins sure managed to communicate a lot. But she won’t win best actress. Richard Jenkins was just wonderful as Giles, but I think everyone knows Sam Rockwell has best supporting actor in the bag. I love Octavia Spencer and I think she’s brilliant in everything she’s in, but I did find her nomination puzzling. She seems to be the Academy’s new go-to nominee – look out Meryl! I don’t think it matters though. The moms of I, Tonya and Ladybird will be fighting over that one. The sound mixing and editing awards usually go to action movies these days, so Dunkirk and Blade Runner pose strong competition. Although Amphibian Man’s costume is astoundingly realistic, there is a movie about a fashion designer in Phantom Thread and two other period pieces, as well as Beauty and the Beast to contend with for best costume design. I’d love to say they’re a shoo-in for production design, but one never knows. The music was… I’m running out of adjectives… I’ll have to use beautiful again… and really added to the magical wondrousness of del Toro’s world so I think they have a shot at best original music score. I won’t pretend to know enough about cinematography or film editing to say whether or not they outdid the competition here.
When it really comes down to it, all I really want is for Guillermo del Toro to feel some love. He’s nominated for best picture, best director and best original screenplay, all hotly contested categories. As special as this movie is, it might still be just a little too weird for the Oscar voters when it comes to best picture, and Three Billboards has been sweeping this category at all the other awards ceremonies. Fortunately for Guillermo, Three Billboards director Martin McDonagh is not nominated for best director. However, Christopher Nolan and Paul Thomas Anderson are, for Dunkirk and Phantom Thread respectively. Both have multiple nominations but no wins in their history. Could one of them swipe it simply because it’s their “turn”? Best original screenplay is too close to call. Three Billboards seems to be the bookies favourite, but Greta Gerwig is Hollywood’s darling right now. And don’t forget Jordan Peele’s boundary breaking debut masterpiece Get Out. This might be another category where The Shape of Water is just a little bit too weird.
I would love him to sweep all three, but if he can only have one, let it be best director. Because that’s what he was this year. The best director. In a cruel and cynical world, he had a whacky and wonderful idea and with passion and otherworldly creativity he made, not just a movie, but a world, that we could escape to for two hours and three minutes. A world where you don’t need a voice to be heard; a world where the sea monster is a creature of illustrious beauty; and a world where the bad guy doesn’t win. Three Billboards is being sold as a story of a woman who took matters into her own hands; but isn’t that exactly what Elisa did? Instead of needing rescuing from a monster she rescued her own monster and saved herself in the process. Tell me she’s not the real heroine of this Oscar season? And tell me her creator doesn’t deserve an Oscar for his mantelpiece?
Rating: 4.75 / 5 (Nothing’s perfect, right?!)