Painfully beautiful, and masterfully delivered, Guillermo Del Toro’s literal fish-out-of-water love story is immersive, original and, frankly, wonderful.
Jacob Richardson | 2/01/2018
The Shape of Water
It’s the 1960’s and a mysterious research facility is a hub of excitement when Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) delivers his most recent exploratory discovery; a god-like Amphibian Man (Doug Jones). A hard military man, Strickland seems intent on torturing the creature to death, much to the chagrin of Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg, who seems to be a pre-requirement for a movie being good this year).
Luckily for the creature, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaner, takes a shine to it. She shows love and compassion, delivering food, teaching it about music and dance. Eventually they fall in love, and together with her elderly homosexual artist neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her chatterbox work colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer), she hatches a dastardly, daring plan to break her lover out of the facility.
Del Toro is a master at world building and creating atmosphere. He’s also somewhat hit and miss. Here, luckily, he is on peak form; creating this incredible portrait of 1960’s America with visuals somewhat reminiscent of Amelie. Indeed, our main character (Elisa) is a provocative ingenue, much like Audrey Tautou was in that film, and she creates the same love for her in the audience as Tatou did. Hawkins does incredible, indelible work in a role that necessarily prevents her from emoting with speech.
Together with Del Toro, Hawkins manages to give Elisa all the emotionality necessary to create true feeling for this character and her situation. It’s done through a combination of performance and direction that is wondrous to behold. In particular, the scene where Elisa implores Giles to help her craft the escape plan is a masterful representation of creating emotion in a scene; right down to Jenkins’ storming out of the room muttering that “It’s not even human”, before Hawkins strides into the hall, smashes her fist into the wall to make enough sound to get his attention, and signs back to him “if we don’t help, so are we”. This must have been a challenging character portrayal to approach from both acting and directing perspectives, but Del Toro and Hawkins are more than up to the challenge.
The set design is also astounding. There’s a real sense of whimsy and fantasy created with the colour grade and some of the scenery. It’s not believable, but it is emotional; we feel more watching a film as stylized as this. Indeed, the fact that it isn’t entirely believable as a location (Elisa has a ridiculous apartment on a single cleaners salary, above an achingly beautiful cinema) adds to the interpretation of this film as fantasy, which is likely necessary when considering that we do watch a human and a fish man begin a sexual relationship.
Michael Shannon, as the film’s villain, chews the scenery like no-one’s business. Whether he is tearing two blackened, dead fingers off his hand or spitting lines like “I still got my thumb, my trigger and my pussy finger” at his subjugates, he dominates the space around him viscerally. Del Toro gives Shannon enough space to really push his character, busting some of the more hard edges down in little moments of nuance.
In many respects, structurally this is reminiscent of something like Pan's Labyrinth, but tonally it often eschews it’s 1960’s setting, rainy exteriors and giant fish person to mimic, if not the strict content, the emotionality and feeling of something like Hugo. In this way, while there are moments of gore and nudity, The Shape of Water feels prescient for viewers of pretty much all ages. It’s a lovely fable, and no matter what you go into it with, you’ll come out with something, and be the better for it.
Guillermo Del Toro is never one to shy away from a challenge, and here he delivers on a nigh impossible premise, with a mute lead character, in an achingly beautiful, incredibly emotional way. This is a treatise on acting, directing and set design as art. It may struggle to get Oscars recognition (what, with the human-fish relationship), but it deserves to, because this is beautiful, loving filmmaking.