The Shape of Water Review: Spellbinding Ode to Impossible Love

Guillermo Del Toro sees people. And monsters.

He dives inside souls and seeks out beauty from the grotesque like rare pearls that’d be little more than mothballs to the unfeeling eye.

It’s probably what sparked his desire to see a romantic union between the tragic aquatic beast in the Creature From the Black Lagoon and Julie Adams.

‘You wouldn’t understand. You couldn’t understand. Not if you tried your whole life,’ bemoans an exasperated voice at a character incapable of such sensitivity. Fortunately, his inadequacy doesn’t come in the way of savouring The Shape of Water, Del Toro’s spellbinding ode to impossible love.

A poetic darkness and undisguised exuberance paints almost all his stories, but the sublime sentimentality of his latest, nominated for a whopping 13 Oscars, is the most evolved his film-making has ever felt.

Beginning with Alexandre Desplat’s haunting melody, evoking the enchantment of the Pan’s Labyrinth lullaby, and a voiceover serving as a foreword, a technique rather favoured by Del Toro, the sight of water fills its every frame and not just the title.

Water is to this film what ice is to Edward Scissorhands, Tim Burton’s romantic fantasy that frequently comes to mind as its potential for impracticality grows.

From eggs boiling in a pot and a splashing bathtub to the daily thoughts of her calendar (‘Time is but a river flowing from our past’) and the manner in which Eliza (Sally Hawkins, you’ll be the one speechless after witnessing her perfection) was first discovered, water seems to write out her destiny and encounter with an amphibian man (Doug Jones, wearing latex like second skin) at the research facility she works for as a cleaner.

Eliza bears sharp scars on her neck and does not speak.

There’s a spirit in her silence that communicates she may be lonely but not without support.

The latter comes to her in the friendship of an ageing gay neighbour (Richard Jenkins juggles failure and friendliness with seasoned ease) and sharp-witted black co-worker (Octavia Spencer at her humorous best).

Deliberate in its politics, The Shape of the Water makes a valid case for pertinent issues by weaving the degree of discrimination in America’s Cold War-afflicted ambience reeking of white supremacy and disregard.

This is as much a fairy tale as it is about the eternal subjugation of marginalised outcastes at the hands of bigoted authority.

The year is 1962. The location is Baltimore.

With the arrival of a mysterious merman in the military lab, Eliza’s daily routine finds a welcome distraction in his enormous appetite, scaly texture and aquamarine eyes.

Del Toro revives and upgrades the creature from Black Lagoon and acknowledges his South American origins before gifting him a consummate romance and thereby fulfilling his childhood fantasy.

On first glance, the creature is fierce to behold. But there’s something gentle, almost human, about his lips and ballooned gaze that makes Eliza’s attraction not just fathomable but oddly sensual too.

The intensity of their passion is confirmed every time his skin breaks into an iridescent glow revealing the peak of his peace and her joy.

Romantic to the core and a master of visuals, Del Toro immortalises their togetherness with gushing sentimentality inside an empty movie theatre celebrating two of his biggest loves — cinema and monsters.

The Shape of Water is full of marvellous details and poignant insights about the human condition and its curiosity for ‘intricate beautiful things’, one that is actively threatened by Eliza’s racist boss, who in Michael Shannon’s sophisticated savagery, achieves frightening authenticity.

As the real revolting figure of the plot, obsessed with keeping his scrupulous record of getting the job done as intently as The Shape of Water is with the colour green, Shannon keeps the action taut and tense with his volatility.

Although his condescending attitude towards his subordinates borderlines on overkill, it works on account of his innate haughtiness.

Another fascinating character in the tale is Michael Stuhlbarg’s sympathetic scientist caught between his patriotism and profession. His hawk-like eye on Eliza’s activities and polite feud with Shannon lead to the movie’s most thrilling bit — the creature’s freedom.

Even if the intelligibility of his rescue is almost miraculous in its estimates, it’s one you pray for so, SO ardently, like you once did for ET.

Del Toro hits a cinematic nerve in capturing an enduring love for the oddball, the beauty in the bizarre and, most importantly, reminding what it’s like to have what one wished for since a kid — a happy ending.

Rating: 4/5

This review was first published on rediff.com.

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Padman review: Akshay crusades for a new cause

Akshay Kumar is a man on a mission. Most of his acclaimed work in recent times involves him taking up a cause that’ll enrich society or whip up nationalistic fervour. There’s an obvious enthusiasm in him to play characters taking a morally high ground. And while it is advantageous to spearhead significant subjects, a monotony of earnestness has set in.

In the R Balki-directed PadMan, Akshay is back to playing a considerate husband fighting provincial mind-sets and social taboos. Only this time creating a disposable sanitary pad — not toilet — occupy his unwavering attention.

His Lakshmikant Chauhan is a man of exceptional sensitivity and ingenuity. Something his young bride, raised on orthodox, old school beliefs can neither understand nor appreciate.

Where most actresses wouldn’t rise above annoyingly regressive, Radhika Apte imbues her character’s embarrassment and irritation with a heartfelt understanding of a woman caught between her cravings for comforting conventionality while faced with boldness beyond her grasp. She is like as her husband complains, ‘Rani Mukerji ke zamane mein Devika Rani ki dialogue bol rahi ho.’

The other women in his life — his elderly mother and three sisters — aren’t allowed such complexity. They are little more than scandalised, scampering, bunnies every time Lakshmi appears before them flashing a sparkling white pad in hand.

Undeterred by his family’s disapproval and social ostracism, Lakshmi endeavours to discover the mechanism behind a serviceable pad in a manner that looks unexpectedly comfortable and pleasant on screen.

Scenes where he is sitting by a pretty pond encircled by frangipani flowers and heaping cotton wads on fresh green leaves are filmed in a curiously delicious manner (by P C Sreeram), as though he’s packing tiffin of steamed idlis. Nor has receiving free samples of materials from overseas suppliers ever looked more at the snap of a finger.

Although the treatment is understated if compared to Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, its feminist hero ethos — Ek aurat ki hifazat mein nakamiyab aadmi apne aap ko mard kaise keh sakta hai? — are almost identical.

Menstruation is seldom a part of our conversation in the movies. And PadMan scores for highlighting the shocking disregard for menstrual hygiene as well as unjustified steep pricing of means that offer protection from the same a lot more effectively than last year’s Phullu.

What PadMan is aiming for is admirable and a genuine concern, but it isn’t always above the missteps common to most films of the meaningful genre.

In the beginning, it adopts a largely logical approach at the rampant problem. Save for the ‘Test match’ slur, not much is dwelled upon the absurd superstitions associated with menstruation, an outlook that is prevalent among the educated and privileged lot as well. Instead, PadMan‘s energy is directed in documenting Lakshmi’s journey and experiments into a fairy-tale triumph replete with Balki regular Amitabh Bachchan’s blessing and all.

To Balki’s credit he presents these technical pursuits with enough excitement to sustain interest. There’s a recurring parallel in the visuals of Hindu Gods like Hanuman and Krishna as coconut and Prasad vending machines of religious expectations next to Lakshmi’s socially frowned engineering, which subtly conveys the challenges of introducing practical methods in a deeply convoluted network of obsolete beliefs.

It is inspired by the true story of Coimbatore’s Arunachalam Muruganantham and his award-winning invention, one that not only offered functional, economical sanitary napkins but also empowered women as means to earn an independent livelihood featured as a fictionalised short story in co-producer Twinkle Khanna’s The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad.

PadMan dramatises his reality to accomodate romance and distinction with a calculation that is one of the weakest aspects of an otherwise constructive narrative.

Serving as catalyst to this purpose, Sonam Kapoor contributes with her sartorial elegance and appears at home in her character’s urban, rational and humanitarian sensibilities. But Balki’s need to complicate her platonic equation with Akshay leaves the viewer both confused and distracted.

The big speech at UN to follow, a cheap imitation of Sridevi’s, from the director’s better half Gauri Shinde’s English Vinglish, rechrishtened Linglish here, single-handedly demolishes everything Akshay’s carefully calibrated performance has worked for.

It’s one thing to come out great and entirely another to claim it. ‘Mad only become famous,’ he stresses in a monologue reeking of ‘Look, how socially conscious I am.’ The affectation is conspicuous and disappointing especially when even the blood stains in his pants seemed more sincere.

For all its worth, PadMan has its premise in place. Now if only it had some wings.

Rating: 2.5

This review was first published on rediff.com.

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Phantom Thread: Daniel Day-Lewis signs off with a masterpiece

A still from Phantom Thread

A simple action of Daniel Day-Lewis eating a buttery mushroom omelette conveys more ingenuity than many a capable actor can only hope of in their entire career. By virtue of Daniel Day-Lewis, nothing is simple. The action of him nibbling on an egg dish is accompanied with a stare and smile so discerning, it could only end in a confession and the most bewitching moment of Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece, Phantom Thread. 

As the woman at the other end of his piercing gaze, Vicky Krieps, a remarkable talent from Luxembourg, matches Day-Lewis in wit and harmony with steely determination and gentle ambiguity. 

If not for the three-time Oscar winner’s decision to retire after this — all the more reason to reconsider — Krieps would be hogging all the limelight. Phantom Thread is largely her perspective.

An attractive quietness confounds their strange relationship as well as the film, which allows its characters raging passions and perfectionism to be understood on its own without forcing confrontations or excitement. 

The upshot is a steadily suffocating ambiance, which begins like a seductive game of wits only to demand its players give into their darkest impulses whilst laying forth the most intriguing ideas on feminism and masochism. 

Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a valued couturier in post-war London modelled on Spanish dress designer Cristobal Balenciaga, who hates confrontations, distractions, strawberry jam and anything remotely jarring in sound or sight. His fastidious grooming and breakfast routine, clinically operating workplace and impassive but devoted sister (the astute Lesley Manvilleevokes a gentler Bette Davis) reflect this discipline. But the entry of a waitress named Alma (Krieps) threatens to destroy his carefully achieved precision with convention and spontaneity. 

In the beginning, she’s a willing mannequin, happy to share emotional space with his dominant sister and dead mother, feeling empowered in his impeccable creations and a little less conscious of her imperfect frame. 

‘My job is to give you some, if I chose to,’ remarks Woodcock on noticing her lack of breasts. He’s equally taken in by the ingénue except what would be the look of love for any other filmmaker is an occasion for scrutiny in a PTA creation. Woodcock studies and judges Elma’s every move, every noise minutely, disapprovingly. 

Sensitivity can make a man cruel. ‘Maybe you have no taste,’ he tells her. But Elma’s gumption is what gives her an edge over her ruthlessly discarded predecessors. ‘Maybe I like my own taste,’ she retorts. 

Feeling trapped inside his increasingly complex designs, she wishes to be more than a muse and model and reciprocated for her affection and asparagus in conventional terms, no matter how vulgar Woodcock deems it. 

What’s fascinating is how she alternates between submission and manipulation, questionable as it may be. Elma has come to understand the volatility of loving a fussy genius until Woodcock hands her the key to his soul and salvation.

Unravelling in the splendid but stifling interiors of his grand abode, Phantom Thread rarely ventures into fresh air for a break. But it’s the most real, most riveting portrait of toxic love you’re likely to witness in a long, long time. 

This review was first published on rediff.com.

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