“Incomplete” sounds like the operative word in Guillermo del Toro’s inter-specie romance/fairy-story THE SHAPE OF WATER, headlining this year’s Oscar game witha whopping 13 nominations.A mute janitor Elisa Esposito (Hawkins) working at a secret USA government laboratory in Baltimore develops a cordially mutual bond with an amphibian humanoid (Doug Jones, once again, nimbly embodies del Toro’s monster under its spectacular camouflage), the sense of "completion" is hinted by Elisa’s gill-shaped scar on her neck, indicating that there must be an uncanny connection between them, and she must carry out a derring-do to rescue the creature from an imminent vivisection consented by the evil Colonel Richard Strickland (Shannon), yet, even if her plan works, is there a happy-ever-after waiting for the star-crossed lovers in the outside world?
Opening the film with a stunning underwater showpiece of Elisa’s water-submersed apartment through the voice of Gilles (Jenkins), Elisa’s next-door-neighbor, a gay advertisement illustrator who becomes a father figure to her, del Toro cogently calibrates the story’s fantastic texture right at the point of departure, and we are completely ensorcelled by his exhaustively fabricated 1960s’ retro setting, tints of glaucous green, sapphire blue and subdued amber, adorned by Alexandre Desplat’s euphonious tuneage and eclectic ditties.
If the story doesn’t pan out as revelatory as one might anticipate, what del Toro and his co-writer Vanessa Taylor excel in is the conscientiously integrated signs of the times, Elisa, her co-worker Zelda (Spencer), Gilles and Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Stunhbarg), a Soviet Union mole who steps up as an unlikely aide to Elisa when the crunch comes, they are characters living on the fringe of the society, their skin-color, sexual orientation, gender, vocation or parentage subjects them as the victim of racism, sexism, homophobia, cold war paranoia (destroy the asset so that the enemy can not acquire it as well) and treachery. Applying an unequivocal angel-and-demon dichotomy, the film establishes Col. Strickland as the superlative villain, living his American dream of suburban complacency and hooked by capitalistic consumerism, he will stop at nothing in finishing his job, andMichael Shannon’s go-for-broke incarnation of intimidation is non-pareil, it is rather telling that his performance is left mostly unheralded in the awards season, which prompts Richard Jenkins as the MVP amongst the sterling triad of supporting male performers to receive Oscar’s recognition, a similar feat when Shannon himself usurped his co-star Aaron Taylor-Johnson to swoop an Oscar nomination in Tom Ford's NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016), clearly, the current trend among the Academy members is good guys over sleazebags, which shouldn’t be construed as a deprecated remark on Jenkins’ affable, nuanced and constantly heart-felt performance. Ineluctably, de Toro pulls no punches in the token victim succumb to the sinister milieu, although violence has been well tempered along the road, Michael Stuhlbarg steals our hearts in his wondrous transmitting of trepidation and pathos.
In the distaff front, Octavia Spencer pulls off an almost unrivaled record as an Oscar-winner bagging a third Oscar nomination in the supporting category (a recent predecessor could be Jason Robards),her Zelda might be just as well snatched from THE HELP (2011), but her earthy effulgence and earnestness are what connect and engage audience. The biggest asset, is of course, Sally Hawkins, deprived of verbal capacity (except for a singing-and-dancing, beauty-and-beast-esque, monochromatic figment of Elisa’s imagination), whose expressiveness lurks unassumingly in every shot whether she is gesticulating along either Zelda or Gilles, reveling in her own fantasy or intimacy, or simply brazening out the mounting adversity with grace and valor.
A fluidly bewitching, incredibly poetic tall-tale del Toro’s THE SHAPE OF WATER might seem to be hemmed in its conventional narrative structure with every and each turn running to pedestrian, but in its heart of hearts, it singsa hymn to all the “incomplete” individuals, never despair, never give up hope.
referential points: del Toro’s PAN’S LABYRINTH (2006, 9.0/10), THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE (2001, 7.4/10).