Telluride: Can 'The Shape of Water' Morph Into a Major Oscar Contender?

Guillermo Del Toro's latest sci-fi/fantasy film, which stars Sally Hawkins, had its North American premiere on Saturday.
Courtesy of Telluride Film Festival
'The Shape of Water'

Every once in a while, I misread a film's awards prospects out of the gate. Perhaps the most notable examples have been 2015's Mad Max: Fury Road and 2016's Arrival; citing historical genre biases, I did not foresee the Academy embracing them to the extent that they eventually did. Those scarring experiences have made me doubt myself when it comes to sci-fi/fantasy films, which is why I'm a bit hesitant to share my initial awards-read of Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water, which had its North American premiere at the Werner Herzog Theatre on Saturday night as part of the Telluride Film Festival, following a stop at the Venice Film Festival earlier in the week.

During a pre-screening intro, with rain, appropriately enough, loudly slamming onto the roof of the venue, del Toro said The Shape of Water, which Fox Searchlight will release Dec. 8, was inspired by the love he first felt at the age of six for the classic 1954 B-movie Creature from the Black Lagoon. The connective thread between the two films is obvious. But working with a much bigger budget and much better visual effects, del Toro's picture centers around a mute cleaning lady, played by Sally Hawkins (an Oscar nominee for 2013's Blue Jasmine), at a government laboratory in 1962 who befriends, of all things, a recently discovered and captured "swamp monster." She shares her secret only with her closeted gay roommate, played by Richard Jenkins, and her sassy coworker, played by Octavia Spencer, but she eventually lands in hot, well, water, with the sadistic official charged with protecting the government's big secret, played by Michael Shannon.

The Shape of Water is a lot of fun and, accordingly, seemed to please most of the moviegoers in the theater and the critics who have weighed-in about it. (THR's David Rooney, for instance, wrote that del Toro "delivers pure enchantment.") The film boasts fine work from top-notch actors (Hawkins is particularly strong, as always, and Jenkins gets to deploy his top-notch comedic abilities); outstanding craft and technical work (of the sort that propelled del Toro's 2006 breakthrough Pan's Labyrinth to six Oscar noms, including best original screenplay and best foreign-language film, and three wins in below-the-line categories), plus an excellent musical score by Alexandre Desplat; and some truly transcendent scenes and sequences (including one that provoked a rare burst of mid-screening applause). In other words, as he previously demonstrated with Pan's Labyrinth, del Toro has the ability to take genre material and transform it into something more.

But, the historical precedents do suggest that The Shape of Water could face an uphill fight if it's to break into the Academy's major categories. Don't get me wrong: del Toro is exciting and inventive and could find some support from fellow directors; and Hawkins certainly deserves consideration from her fellow actors (but in a year in which the best actress category is very deep, bigger names and showier performances probably have the edge). As for picture? Del Toro suggested before the screening that the film serves as a metaphor for how Americans treat undocumented immigrants, but not everyone's going to see the film in that light. For many, the movie will exist primarily as entertainment. Academy voters tend to favor films that impress them with their gravitas, so the challenge for Searchlight will be convincing Academy members that The Shape of Water has a serious enough subtext to merit serious consideration.

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