In his acceptance speech for Best Director at the British Academy Film Awards, Guillermo Del Toro paid tribute to Mary Shelley. This attention highlights the significance of the female voice in Del Toro’s films, which in The Shape of Water is significant by its absence. Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins) mutely observes the world of early 1960s Baltimore, her silence one of several forms of alienation depicted in the film. Eliza’s friend and fellow janitor, Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) is alienated from her distant husband and also from others by racial prejudice, especially that which is exhibited by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who seems intent on alienating himself from everyone. Eliza’s neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) is alienated both professionally and personally by his sexuality; Dr Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) is alienated from different groups by his commitment to science over politics; and in the heart of the research institute where much of the drama takes place, the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) is alienated by being different to everyone around him. Yet amongst these forms of alienation, Del Toro weaves a delicate and beautiful story of connection, beauty that includes Paul D. Austerberry’s exquisite production design as well as Alexandre Desplat’s haunting and evocative score. As in Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, the fantastic is laced with the political as well as often brutal violence. More distinctly, there is an unashamed embrace of female sexuality, as Eliza is defined not by her disability but by her recognition of mutuality, mutuality that connects her to all around her despite apparent differences. This extends to the film as a whole which, despite its overt strangeness, offers a universality that envelops its characters and audience in a shifting and all-encompassing shape, rather like that of water.
In case you’ve been living in a cave, it’s awards season, a time when films are rewarded for being excellent or at least because they tick some subjective boxes about what counts as ‘quality’. Some film fans proclaim their absolute certainty of what should be rewarded, but I prefer to discuss the nominees without the assumption of superiority, although I certainly have my own views. I’ve written previously about radical and conservative choices of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This year’s Best Picture nominees are a varied bunch, including typical and not so typical Oscar bait. Two topics that AMPAS loves are World War II and twentieth century American history (which obviously overlap). Darkest Hour and Dunkirk are both concerned with World War II, making them interesting companion pieces if rather obvious award choices. The same is true of The Post, which recounts a battle over freedom of the press. In previous years, the Best Picture gong would most likely go to one of these three, but times are a-changing.
Recent Oscar years have been less predictable and more radical, with mainstream genre fare and provocative subject matter getting a look in. The most radical entries in this year’s race are Get Out, a horror film about American racial politics, and The Shape of Water, a fantasy film mixed with Cold War tensions. Mixed in with these are two coming of age tales, Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird. Each of these has a distinct selling point: Lady Bird is about American girlhood, a rare enough topic in cinema let alone Oscar hopefuls; Call Me By Your Name is a love story between two men, suggesting that Moonlight’s surprise win last year may have been trailblazing.
Personally, I am torn over what I would like to win. Dunkirk was my favourite film last year, but it is such a safe choice I want something more radical to be named Best Picture. In the current climate of the Me Too and Time’s Up campaigns, fine films honouring women warrant attention. Lady Bird would be a remarkable winner, but it seems like a fairly safe film that offers no particular challenge. Pleasing though it is to see a film about racial tensions, and indeed a horror film, up for Best Picture, Get Out failed to wow me. The Shape of Water is an exquisite piece of work that tells a story of alienation largely filtered through the figure of a woman, whose sexuality and independence are foregrounded without overemphasis. For these reasons, as well as its supernatural elements, I would like The Shape of Water to pick up Best Picture.
However, there are two more nominees. Phantom Thread’s presence is hard to understand politically – the film is historical which the Academy often likes, but its focus is on a rather abrasive relationship. Perhaps, shock horror, its nomination is because a majority of the Academy membership simply think Phantom Thread is a very well made film. This view could carry it to Best Picture, but I doubt it because, after its success at the Golden Globes and BAFTAs, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri appears to be the lead contender to walk away with Best Picture.
Three Billboards is a somewhat typical contender, as it is a story about ‘America’. However, it is a far from rose-tinted portrait of modern America, as grief, resentment, racism, domestic abuse and terminal illness all jockey for position of primary misery. But, as is so often the case with award magnets, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film of its time. Some pundits argue that a key element to the election of Donald Trump was his regular reference to the ‘forgotten’ people of America. Whether Mr Trump’s concerns are genuine or not, his rhetoric in favour of these supposed ‘forgotten’ people was certainly prominent, and such people are the focus of Three Billboards. With its focus upon blue collar people, largely neglected by advances in technology and infrastructure, living in communities fractured by class and racial tensions, Three Billboards is very much a film about America at its current moment (despite being a largely British production). Furthermore, the film resonates with current debates over gender relations in the film industry and beyond, with Frances McDormand’s Mildred an inspiring and unconventional protagonist. For its insightful and unflinching, yet heartfelt and never mean-spirited capturing of the zeitgeist, it is my prediction that the Oscar for Best Picture will go to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most singular filmmakers working in cinema today. From the melancholy of Magnolia to the ferocity of There Will Be Blood and the density of The Master, Anderson fuses image and sound in a unique and uncompromising fashion that is distinct and unmistakable. Phantom Thread is as unquestionably Anderson as his other films, with exquisite attention sewn into every detail. From the period detail of cars and interior mise-en-scene to the extraordinary costumes designed by protagonist Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), to the intimately extended character studies of Reynolds, his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) and the new lady in their life, Alma (Vicky Krieps), Anderson draws the viewer completely into this world, often to an uncomfortable degree. Reynolds’ expectation of complete adherence to his wishes leads to some squirm-inducing sequences, most overtly when the sounds of breakfast escalate to a cacophonous assault. Yet Alma’s commitment to her relationship with Reynolds combined with her measure of him ensures that she holds her own no matter what he says or does. It may seem reductive to describe Phantom Thread as a romantic drama, but in its entirety it weaves the tale of a relationship that is unlike those normally seen in film. It is perhaps this refusal of narrative convention, combined with the sublime level of immersive details, that ensures Phantom Thread is never less than completely compelling and utterly absorbing, threading its way through the viewer’s consciousness to create a lasting and elaborate tapestry.
With the clacking of a typewriter, Darkest Hour echoes Atonement, Joe Wright’s earlier (and more impressive) foray into World War II drama. The bravura moment of that film was an extraordinary long take of the British troops trapped at Dunkirk, the focus of Christopher Nolan’s award botherer. Darkest Hour presents the time of Dunkirk from another perspective – that of Parliament in May 1940 as Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) takes the office of British Prime Minister while Europe collapses before the Third Reich. Winston faces multiple challenges as he tries to wrangle survival for the troops and also protect his own position. Oldman is superb, unrecognisable in remarkable makeup yet never appearing to be a man in makeup. From his voice that wanders from quavering to strident (more varied than Brian Cox’s equally powerful turn), Oldman brilliantly portrays a career politician who understands the game of Westminster and only plays it his way. As a character study the film is effective and compelling, and Wright uses some thrilling cinematic effects such as long takes that travel around the House of Commons and overhead shots that range from Winston working furiously in bed as well as beleaguered British soldiers in Calais. At other times, however, the drama feels overdetermined, such as the machinations of Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) as well as a sequence on the London Underground when Winston performs a mini-referendum on relations with Germany. This speaking to the people raises the interesting question of how to view the film through the lens of Brexit. There may be a temptation to adopt Darkest Hour for nationalistic propaganda, its depiction of a time when Britain stood against Europe calling for Britain to stand against the EU in these uncertain times. Equally, one can see Darkest Hour as a call for unity across borders in a time of division and mistrust, a point emphasised by Winston’s rallying of MPs even as the War Cabinet plots against him. For all its flaws, Darkest Hour still offers much food for debate, be that Parliamentary or otherwise.
Martin McDonagh’s third feature is touching, moving, darkly humorous and deeply tragic. This seemingly contradictory concoction is expressed through a beautifully measured and exquisitely designed portrait of small town America. Ebbing, Missouri is a town where everyone knows everyone and the major advertising agency, police station and popular bar are within walking distance of each other. Yet it is also a deeply troubled and fractured town. These fractures are foreshadowed in the opening shots, where DOP Ben Davis captures the dilapidated titular billboards, the frame sliced with the supporting struts much as the town is sliced through with mistrust and resentment. For the most part, the direction follows this unobtrusive approach, until a long take expresses the eruption of previously contained violence. This violence is key to its perpetrator, who like all the characters is superbly realised both by McDonagh’s merciless yet tender script, and an array of mighty performances from the entire cast. From incidental figures such as the pretty but oblivious Penelope (Samara Weaving) to supporting characters like James (Peter Dinklage) who cynically embraces the label of ‘town midget’, to the three leads of Mildred (Frances McDormand), Police Chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), all the people in this tale are rounded, engaging and brilliantly flawed figures. Mistakes are made, judgements held and everyone is wracked with anger, pain and loss. Yet there is also compassion, care and love, both between characters and for the film’s world as a whole. For all its harshness and tragedy, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a wonderfully human story, offering emotional peaks and troughs as well as a subtle socio-political commentary as it gives voice to a largely neglected part of America.