The Shape of Water(2018)
- RatedM18 /GenreDrama, Fantasy
In The Godfather, the Corleone family received a threatening message, telling them that the enforcer Luca Brasi “sleeps with the fishes”.
This fantasy romance film puts an entirely different spin on that phrase.
It is 1962, and Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute janitor working at a secret government facility in Baltimore. Elsa lives alone, and her two best friends are her neighbour, illustrator Giles (Richard Jenkins), and her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer).
Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the severe head of security, arrives at the facility with precious cargo in tow — a humanoid amphibian creature dubbed ‘the Asset’ (Doug Jones). Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is studying the Asset, takes issue with Strickland’s harsh treatment towards the creature.
Elisa gradually begins to bond with the creature, bringing him eggs and playing music on a gramophone in his presence. As unlikely as it seems, Elisa begins to fall in love with the Asset. When she discovers his life is in danger, Elisa sets about rescuing the Asset from the facility, making her a target of Strickland’s wrath.
Director Guillermo del Toro, who also co-wrote the film with Vanessa Taylor, has always been a genre filmmaker. All his films can be classified as fantasy, horror, science fiction, or some combination of the above. However, this has never restricted him — rather, working within these genres has freed del Toro as a storyteller. General audiences often view genre films through a somewhat narrow lens, but del Toro broadens said lens, and The Shape of Water is an excellent example of this approach. The film has garnered 13 Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture and Best Director – it’s not every day that the Academy recognises fantasy romance monster movies this way.
This is a weird, beautiful, enchanting movie. On the surface, there’s the oddness of a woman falling in love and entering a physical relationship with a humanoid fish creature. Originally, del Toro wanted to remake Creature from the Black Lagoon, but from Gill-man’s perspective, recasting the classic movie monster as a romantic lead.
Naturally, cheesy romance novels in which women fall in love with supernatural creatures of various stripes, including but not limited to vampires, werewolves, angels and immortals, come to mind. However, The Shape of Water is far more poetic and less literal than that. Its bizarreness is intertwined with enveloping warmth. This is a movie about outsiders finding solace and understanding in each other, and past the genre trappings, there’s something pure and resonant about that.
The film treats 60s America with a degree of romanticism, but is also keenly aware of the societal tensions at the time and how those attitudes continue to manifest themselves today. This is fantasy, but the world in which it unfolds is eminently believable.
Like all del Toro’s movies, The Shape of Water is deliberately designed. All the little details vividly evoke the period, and the atmospherics, from the colour palette to Alexandre Desplat’s harp-driven score, sell the film as a meticulously crafted whole. As envisioned by production designer Paul D. Austerberry and shot by cinematographer Dan Laustsen, there’s a cold dankness to the research facility. However, this proves to be the right setting for the romance between Elisa and the Asset to blossom, the unromantic surrounds throwing their bond into sharper relief.
The Elisa character gives Hawkins the opportunity to deliver a sensitive yet electrifying performance. The character is mute, and has always felt like she’s been regarded as missing something everyone else has, even though she is a whole person, with dreams and desires of her own. The character’s sexuality is portrayed with a refreshing frankness, and Hawkins brings no vanity to the part at all.
Hawkins’ physicality complements the physicality displayed by Doug Jones, an oft-collaborator of Guillermo del Toro’s. Like classic movie monster portrayers Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff, there’s more to Doug Jones than the fact that he’s in special effects makeup in most of his roles. In The Shape of Water, he gives a legitimately masterful performance, overcoming the constraints of what must’ve been a very uncomfortable suit, especially since Jones was in water for most of the film.
With his luminous skin and clear eyes, The Asset has become something of an unlikely sex symbol. Legacy Effects developed the special effects suit and makeup, and it’s easy to buy the Asset as a living, breathing entity. However, he looks so much like Abe Sapien from the Hellboy movies – also directed by del Toro – that this reviewer couldn’t help but imagine the Asset was Abe Sapien, even though del Toro has said they’re different characters.
Michael Shannon is in maximum creep mode, playing a truly despicable antagonist. Strickland is cruel, racist and exacting, but has also bought in to the consumerist message of the ‘American dream’, coveting a fancy new Cadillac. There’s a bit of a supervillain air to Strickland, but Shannon never goes the full moustache-twirling hog. There’s the religious zealot angle, with Strickland referencing Bible stories and saying that the Asset is an aberration for not being made ‘in God’s image’. Shannon can always be counted on to play a scary villain, and Strickland is plenty scary.
Jenkins’ Giles is a loveable character, someone who’s harbouring a secret and whom, like Elisa, knows what it’s like to be an outcast. The friendship shared by Elisa and Giles is sweet, and Jenkins and Hawkins play off each other to create an unconventional, lightly comedic double act.
Spencer plays to type as Zelda, sassy and chatty and always an understanding friend and co-worker to Elisa. Stuhlbarg’s character seems like the stock sci-fi movie scientist, but we see a few layers to him as the film progresses.
The Shape of Water is an exquisite creation that brims with humanity. It’s not afraid to expose some of the ugliness of humanity, but it counteracts that with indescribable beauty. This is a fairy tale for grown-ups, with plenty to say beyond its central conceit of ‘woman falls in love with humanoid fish monster’. There will be audiences who might be put off by its superficial weirdness, but most viewers will find it easy to surrender to the film’s embrace, however cold and slimy it might seem at first.
RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars