A LOOK AT 2017 FILMS NOMINATED FOR PROMINENT OSCARS
BY LEE PFEIFFER
Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water illustrates just how far the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has evolved when it comes to recognizing major achievements in film genres that were once generally ignored when it came to Oscar recognition. The once-gentrified Academy would occasionally bow to popular sentiments and nominate blockbusters like The Exorcist, Jaws and The Exorcist for major awards but no one ever truly expected them to win. More often than not, horror and sci-fi-oriented movies were generally recognized in the categories of special effects to the exclusion of recognition for picture, director, screenplay, etc. As a new generation that was weaned on the artistic merits of these genres came of age, the Academy began to reflect their values and at last the artists who created great works in these areas were afforded attention. The Shape of Water is a cinematic oddity that is admittedly an acquired taste, so it speaks well for the Academy that del Toro has been nominated for Best Director and Original Screenplay (with Victoria Taylor) as well as Best Picture.
If you haven't seen it, do so, because the greatest asset of the movie is that you never know in what direction the script will veer. The film is set in the early 1960s with Sally Hawkins as the protagonist, Elisa, a cleaning lady who is employed at a top secret government facility that is dedicated to Cold War espionage research. Elisa lives a lonely existence and she is suffering from a severe handicap: she is a mute. She shares a modest apartment above an old world movie theater with Giles (Richard Jenkins), an aging gay graphic designer and artist who is living on the financial edge, having lost full time employment and trying to subsist on a decreasing number of freelance assignments. He and Elisa are the closest of friends and he acts as combination parental figure and intellectual companion who has learned to communicate with her with ease. Elisa's life takes a dramatic turn when she discovers that government agents have brought an extraordinary find into the facility: a creature that resembles a human in form but which has gills and lives underwater in a river in South America. The creature, which we will refer to as a merman (no, his name isn't Ethel), is being examined and routinely tortured by short-sighted government agents led by Richard Strickland (a mesmerizing Michael Shannon), a mean-spirited who quickly decides the creature has no real value in terms of helping to win the Cold War and advocates having him destroyed. Elisa secretly makes contact with the merman and takes pity on him, sneaking him food and helping to ease his pain. She realizes he is an intelligent creature who has human qualities and vulnerabilities. With his execution imminent, she organizes a daring rescue for the merman, assisted by Giles and her best friend and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). This unlikely trio of misfits orchestrates the plan in a manner that is both ingenious, amusing and very suspenseful. By now, Elisa is madly in love with the merman and thereby introduces perhaps the first inter-species romance seen in a major film. Call it Creature from the Black Lagoon by way of Hunchback of Notre Dame. I won't divulge much more except to say the performances are truly superb and Hawkins, Jenkins and Spencer have all been justifiably nominated for Oscars along with Alexandre Desplat for his impressive score.
There are a few nitpicks I can make, primarily that del Guillermo throws in some superfluous sex scenes. We know Elisa is a lonely soul, but is it necessary to demonstrate that by having scenes of her masturbating in the bathtub? Similarly, a scene of Strickland playing tyrannical husband to his obedient, attractive wife includes an out-of-left-field tidbit in which she plops out one of her breasts, thus leading to a scene in which he makes love to her in a manner that most women would consider to be sexual assault. Not to be a prude, but such gimmickry seems reek of crass commercialism rather than ingredients that add measurably to the story,
The Shape of Water is a moving and genuinely beguiling love story unlike anything the Academy would have considered honoring had it emerged decades ago. It's not for everyone but even those who don't warm to the premise will admire the outstanding performances and production values.