Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Octavia Spencer
To say some real hype preceded the release of this film in the UK is perhaps as big an understatement as any. And, frankly, rightly so. You might not think a love story of any kind would work when the relationship revolves around a mute human lady and an “amphibian man” that speaks only in clicks and squeaks. But throw in some themes revolving around loneliness and imprisonment, beauties and beasts, a little bit of charm and a huge dose of Guillermo del Toro, and you are, in theory, on to a total winner. So does The Shape of Water pull off one of the greatest water-based love stories this side of The Little Mermaid, or does it flounder in its attempt?
If anyone can make a romance between a human and a humanoid work, it’s del Toro. 2004’s Hellboy hinted at it, but The Shape of Water takes it the whole way. Elisa (Hawkins), along with her friend and colleague Zelda (Spencer), is a cleaning lady by night at a government-run laboratory. A mute since she was a baby (possibly since birth), Elisa communicates with other people via sign language (subtitled). Whilst on their rounds, Elisa and Zelda are made privy to the capture of a sea creature, known mostly as “The Asset”. Through secret lunch “dates”, shall we say, Elisa very quickly builds a connection with the creature, their mutual inability to verbally express their thoughts creating a foundation for their relationship. Eventually Elisa plans a daring escape for her friend, attempting to thwart the opposing plans of her cruel superior, Colonel Strickland (Shannon).
The above summary makes the film sound very romantic indeed. Of course it has its romantic elements but it’s hardly like the romance of fairy tales. The relationship between Elisa and the creature would, had it been reality, never have been accepted in the early 1960s mid-cold war society the film is set in. Acceptance is a huge theme throughout – acceptance of who we are and who we love. It’s reflected in the characters of Elisa’s neighbour/roommate, Giles (Jenkins), a closeted gay man who, career- and age-wise, is past his prime, and Zelda, a black woman. It’s a good way for del Toro to link his story to modern times – LGBT people and non-white people are still very much oppressed, more so in some places than others, but it’s still an on-going battle. It’s a way for different audiences to connect and relate.
You might think as much could not be said for Elisa and the creature’s relationship, but depending on personal experiences it can actually be very easy to relate to. The attraction between Elisa and the creature goes very much beyond physicality. Elisa feels connected to the creature because he doesn’t see her flaws: he sees her for who she is, as a kind, caring and, ultimately, brave person. We can then assume that is where his attraction to her in turn stems from. Their connection, both emotionally and physically, is written, directed and performed so beautifully that you can forgive the fact the two are completely different species (quite likely, anyway). If you can see past that, you can understand the unique connection the two share, the connection most commonly known as ‘love’. It’s the only loving relationship we see in the film (other than the friendships between Elisa and Giles and Elisa and Zelda). Giles’ attempt to strike up a connection with another man doesn’t go all too well, Zelda’s marriage is more muted than Elisa, and Strickland’s marriage is both basic and animalistic. It all goes to show that sometimes the unconventional works far better than the conventional. All it takes is an open mind.
Sally Hawkins is absolutely the stand-out performer in this film. It’s often heard within the acting profession that playing a mute part can be one of the most difficult jobs to undertake. It’s all about the physicality and, quite importantly, the eyes. Even the most talented actor can get away with being a little unemotional in the eyes if the dialogue is delivered well enough to distract. But with Elisa, Hawkins had to portray everything Elisa was thinking through her eyes and her movement, which, thanks to the imagination of del Toro, happens in all sorts of creative ways. If any less care was taken these particular scenes of imagination to convey Elisa’s thoughts and emotions could have appeared tacky or rendered an audience to hysterics. But del Toro’s own love for the story and for Elisa and the creature shines through the dialogue and through the performances of both Hawkins and Doug Jones, the latter being a regular in del Toro’s fantastical films, once again donning an incredible costume in order to bring del Toro’s creation thoughtfully and carefully to life.
As far as villainy goes, Shannon himself proves yet again why he is often the go-to for a three-dimensional antagonist. On the surface, Strickland appears as a very cold and calculating villain, with his only desire being to maim-kill-destroy. Rather, he’s a military man who has been conditioned to understand one thing: violence. It’s the standard for a lot of people coming up through the ranks of the military: trained only to inflict pain in order to get what they want. It almost makes you pity him, but less so when he’s offered alternative ways to get what he wants only to turn them down. He only knows how to follow the violent orders from his superior rather than think for himself. Strickland’s character mirrors that of del Toro’s main villain in 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth, Captain Vidal. There are many similarities between the two films, but these two characters are particularly identical in nature, giving their respective antagonistic storylines the depth you don’t always see in larger-than-life movies.
A moment must be taken for the production design. The whole world within The Shape of Water, whether it be on the outside, in Elisa’s apartment or in the laboratory, has that feeling of being underwater, which was no doubt del Toro and production designer Paul D. Austerberry’s intention. Everything has a green tint to it and, more often than not, is physically wet in some way. In a lot of ways it may remind video game fans of Rapture, the underwater 1960-set city in the first two Bioshock games. The world of The Shape of Water doesn’t always appear dark, however. There’s often some remnant of sunshine, whether it’s appearing through windows or the dawn breaking – even then it’s reminiscent of sunlight breaking through the surface of water. It’s very dreamy and beautiful. It also adds to the fantasy and, in juxtaposition, enhances the audience’s ability to feel the emotion pouring from each character and believe in the unbelievable.
Once again, del Toro has not only created a fantastical story worth investing in, it’s worth believing in, too. From the truly vibrant and original story to the well-rounded and wonderfully performed characters, The Shape of Water has, in this critic’s opinion, fully earned its thirteen Oscar nominations at this year’s Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director, Actress, Production Design and Original Screenplay. It has also already picked up two Golden Globes (Best Director and Best Original Score) and is nominated for a further eleven BAFTAs. It’s up against some stiff competition, but with this film being widely considered del Toro’s magnum opus, at the very least he is getting the recognition he deserves as an outstanding filmmaker.