‘Shape’ joins others as major Oscar contender
February thrusts the continuation of Christian Grey and Ana Steele’s openly S&M romance (“Fifty Shades Freed”) and comic’s first African American superhero, Black Panther, receives the big screen Marvel/Disney treatment. Panther introduced on screen in “Captain America: Civil War” has already set a record for advance sales.
Both films foray into thematic trajectories that in the 1950s and 60s were taboo.
The science fiction fantasy “The Shape of Water” plunges into depiction of pre-inclusive times on Earth, not a galaxy far, far away.
In the past time warp yellow and black “fallout shelter” signs proliferated, the U.S. and Russia silently stalked each others’ scientific realms for classified secrets, and the term “workforce equality” had hardly entered the workplace. Women fresh from world war manufacturing duties were relegated mostly to clerk, receptionist or cleaning duties. Similarly, the black and white racial civil rights marches had yet to assemble. For most, the late 50s/early 60s was a continuation of interrupted 1940s business as usual.
Plain, mute lonely Elisa (Sally Hawkins) trudges the midnight shift at a hidden-in-plain-sight classified scientific facility that has secured an “asset” (an amphibian-esque merman) from an undisclosed venue. While sweeping floors and scraping crap on her bare knees, Elisa hears and sees the creature (Doug Jones). She and fellow custodian Zelda (Octavia Spencer) take out the trash and clean floors as experiment leaders discard them as virtually insignificant.
Director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro has combined the feel of an old style low budget monster movie (“Creature from the Black Lagoon”) and the empathy and romance of an adult fairy tale (“Beauty and the Beast”).
Del Toro’s Elisa has a going nowhere spinster life except for befriending a neighboring artist Giles (Richard Jenkins), both of whom live on the second floor of the Orpheum Theatre.
Hawkins portrays Elisa with a contrary and contradictory personality buried beneath her still mouth. The accident that took her speech likely rendered her tolerant of differences, as her closest friends are an African American, a closet homosexual and the Amazon fish. Otherwise, her life has time preciseness, jumbled by the working midnight to morning, which has her sleeping on a couch wearing blinders, a house coat and dark pumps as slippers. A bath, polishing shoes, packing boiled eggs for lunch and a few moments of TV with Giles are part of her ready to work routine, which does not include painting her face or decorating her legs with hosiery. Her only hint of fashion interest is repeatedly gazing at a red pair of heels (see the film’s cover art), which, perhaps, symbolically point to Dorothy in Oz and Disney’s “Cinderella,” yet they are the only bright object in the otherwise gloomy hued production.
Surrounded by broken misfits like herself, Hawkins relies on sign language, darting eyes and body movements for straggling a fantasy and real world where boorish men in power ignore and fuel a toxic workplace filled with harassment and discrimination of many forms. Each of those characters including a humane scientist opposing a general’s planned autopsy of the creature could be subject to deeper emotional exploration, but this is the ultimate star-crossed lover breaking norms (literally a fish out of water story) that leaves the time frame’s historic inequalities dangling as status quo against cross species affection.
Interestingly, the handsome prince/princess magic goes in reverse along with the addition of a Madison spin from “Splash.”
The creature, like Elisa, does not speak. He learns through repeating, mimicking, and responds to kindness and torture. del Toro leaves much unstated about the “fish,” especially as the climax unfolds.
Having shot “Shape of Water” in the stealth of darkness, the production gains an enduring eerie, mysterious atmosphere hastened by del Toro’s choices of side and back lighting. The film has been nominated for 13 Academy Awards, in best picture, director and acting categories, as well as others, and has already won in such pre-Oscar awards as the Golden Globes, Critic’s Choice, and BAFTA (British Film Academy).
Don’t let the “fairy” in “tale” deceive you, however. “Shape” has an R-rating , though, two of the three sex scenes are brief shrouded by silhouette , the non-essential third is vivid.