Contenders: The Shape of Water; Lady Bird; Darkest Hour

As the Oscars are upon us, I realise that 3 of the contenders are still residing in my ‘to do’ box, and events have conspired to delay my writing their reviews. So here’s a quick catch-up:

THE SHAPE OF WATER deserves every prize going. It feels like a rare foray back to the time when movies were, seemingly effortlessly, great on so many levels – accessible to every regular picturegoer, and at the same time intensely satisfying and admirable as a serious work of art. A cracking plot, gorgeous visuals, fun, passion, and good v evil in the form of the little, unconsidered people against the powerful. And this all in the shape of a fable with its roots in folk tales which tweaks at our deepest instincts. And great acting. Sally Hawkins does her usual wonders making ordinariness special, bringing brightness and heroism to her role as Eliza, a mute cleaner in a gloomy government facility. There’s a new arrival there, a strange and numinous water ‘monster’ found in South America, lined up for vivisection as part of cold war research. A simple but ecstatic relationship soon develops between the two, Eliza’s muteness no bar to love and understanding, and unlike so many monster’s molls, she’s the instigator of action and as avid for sex as him. And Doug Jones’s monster is just about the sexiest I’ve seen! Then there’s Michael Stuhlbarg (also quietly superb in another Oscar contender Call Me By Your Name) playing a reluctant Soviet spy working on the premises. Meanwhile Michael Shannon does his clammy evil shtick, as terrifying as he’s ever been, as the enthusiastic experimental torturer and embodiment of the new go-getting US, a land where prejudice and materialism. Lined up on the good side are Octavia Spencer as Eliza’s co-worker Zelda, playing the doughty fighter for right that she seems to have cornered the market in, and Richard Jenkins as Giles, a lonely gay graphic designer whose expertise is becoming obsolete in this snappy new America. All misfits, all equally sidelined as valueless by the establishment as the monster. There’s also water itself, a life force and medium for sensual pleasure (Eliza’s bath is the zone for her regular morning masturbating and later her union with the monster). It’s a force for good, and when it begins to flood the downstairs cinema, it’s almost a benediction. Cinema too plays its own part, an unexpectedly glamorous manifestation on the undistinguished street below Eliza’s flat, and she and Giles watching and foot-dancing along to old film musicals on his TV is one of the many grace notes of incidental pleasure.

Though the cruelty isn’t quite as coldly terrifying, or the villain as potently evil, as that in Del Toro’s other masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth , it’s sad and shocking. Good does conquer, but at what cost. And like all the best fables, its watery, dark ending leaves one with mixed feelings that are more consolatory than confident that good can prevail, somewhere, deep down.

Seen February 2018, Cineworld Boldon

LADY BIRD, directed by Greta Gerwig, is fully redolent of her melancholy and quirkily funny take on life. And Saoirse Ronan is a perfect embodiment of this snapshot of teenage angst that Gerwig says is based to some extent on her own. The self-named Lady Bird is bright and a bit of a school misfit, aching to get away from life in Sacramento and her cash-starved lower middle class family, with a mother (an excellent Laurie Metcalf) working all hours as a nurse, a father on the point of redundancy and graduate brother working in the local Wallmart. With the discontent of a dreamy teen, she wants to be ’where there’s culture’. It’ll probably touch a nerve in so many audience members (in my case, for Sacramento, read Chesterfield!). Yet trailers showing her mostly as a stroppy teen arguing with her mother do give a slightly wrong flavour of the film, which is mostly warm and funny, and a world of school life that isn’t that bad, compared with the vision we’re often given of bitchy girls and hearty jocks. (And who’d have thought nuns and priests could be such fun?) Though the generations have their own realities, they still recognise each others, and cleverly the film manages to enlist and understand both points of view. Even when Lady Bird is being obnoxious, we’re rooting for her. Even when her mother is shrieking at her, we (or at least those of us who are parents) are with her too. So though shot with melancholy, it’s mostly sunny, as sunny as the charming Sacramento itself looks, and very funny too, with nice roles for Lucas Hedges (impressive in Manchester by the Sea) and Timothee Chalamet, a considerably less likeable floppy haired beauty than in Call Me By Your Name. As a debut feature it’s impressive, though I do hope Gerwig’s own mix of leggy clownishness and subtle emotion will be making an appearance in front of the camera again before too long.

Seen February 2018 Tyneside Cinema Newcastle

And the third film on my list is one that I didn’t much care for, other than for its Oscar-nominated actor. Gary Oldman, so convincingly made-up as to be unrecognisable, is simply superb as Churchill in DARKEST HOUR, however much the film grates with its melodrama and its misjudged excursions into sentimental fantasy. Scenes in a sepia, almost totally male, House of Commons are as beautifully choreographed as we expect from Joe Wright. The need to provide some female presence to what was undeniably a male-led establishment, as in last year’s Churchill with Brian Cox playing the petulant leader, is dealt with by the wife (Here Kristen Scott Thomas, then Miranda Richardson), and the female secretary( Lily James/Ella Purnell), bringing both some ‘feminine’ emotional heft and common sense. But the arrival of George VI in a secret night-time visit to Churchill’s bedchamber to give him his backing blows the film’s credentials. Even more so a totally confected trip by Churchill on a tube train where he meets real people, deferential and plucky each and every one, in particular a bright-eyed schoolgirl and a well-spoken black guy who can quote ‘Horatius at the Bridge’ back to the great man. This is actually an insult to the reality of what those people were to have to go through – my parents’ generation mostly got through the necessary awfulness of the war without such daft pretentiousness. Ok Churchill was right. But crowd-pleasing rhetoric is not of itself a good thing, something we are very aware of these days. And it’s about time for England’s obsession with our own myths about ourselves and the romance of the War to be put behind us.

Seen January 2018 Cineworld Boldon

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