The Shape of Water – Review
A love story between a mute woman and an amphibian creature. Come off it Hollywood. No one’s going to go see that or let it win awards. Errr…awkward. How did The Shape of Water win us all over and become the most successful film at this years Academy Awards?
I write this review a week after The Shape of Water has won the Best Picture award, along with Guillermo Del Toro picking up the Best Director award, at the Oscars. Winning the two most prominent non-acting Oscars marks it out as the stand out film from the 2018 Academy Awards. The success of a film that follows the love story between a mute women and an amphibian creature is particularly surprising especially when you consider the films that have won awards in recent years. Award winners have traditionally been more human focused dramas that focus on big important issues, such as Moonlight, Spotlight and 12 Years a Slave. Fantasy or sci-fi films have gradually been recognised more readily in recent years, but they rarely win the award outright. So, what about this film made it such a success in this instance?
Director Guillermo Del Toro has always been able to bring the ‘weird’ and ‘fantastical’ to whatever film he’s bringing to the big screen. He’s brought us a myriad of unique, creative, and visually stunning creatures across his forays into large Blockbusters (Pacific Rim) and comic book movies (Blade II and the Hellboy franchise). Pan’s Labyrinth is often looked upon as his masterpiece, a dark fantasy film that takes place in Francoist Spain, which introduced us to some of the creepiest and memorable creations from Del Toro’s vivid imagination.
Whilst these creatures are seared in my memory by their appearance, Pan’s Labyrinth showed that Del Toro should also be recognised as a director capable of expertly marrying emotional heartfelt moments amongst these horrors. The success of both Hellboy films inevitably arose from providing the necessary action set pieces that you associate with most comic book films these days. However, Del Toro manged to imbue extra heft to these films by recognising the power of loneliness and love felt by the ‘Big Red’ and Abe Sapien within this comic book world.
Abe Sapien is worth mentioning here as he is undoubtedly an influence upon The Shape of Water’s Amphibian Man (using his IMDB title). Doug Jones played Abe and the Amphibian Man (AM), and he should be given credit here for eliciting a pathos and intrigue to the character mostly through his precise considered movements. This is particularly impressive given it’s a role that’s so heavily dependent upon prosthetic makeup. Jones has been able to bring to life many of the unique creatures within Del Toro’s films, and it feels that this repeated collaboration between actor and director pays off in a performance that could easily have been perfunctory. The resulting Amphibian Man is a shimmering thing of beauty and horror that you can’t help but fall for.
The Shape of Water’s outstanding star, however, is Sally Hawkins. She is responsible for most of the heavy lifting in the film and her performance as Elisa Esposito, a mute cleaner at the research facility where AM is being held captive, is outstanding. Silent since she was discovered ‘by the river’ with scars on her neck, Hawkins has to use every part of her hugely expressive face to convey the emotions that Elisa has throughout her interactions with the Amphibian creature brought into the facility to be studied. Teaching the creature to communicate through sign language, it becomes clear that Elisa’s affinity stems from both being voiceless in cruel world that doesn’t forgive these differences.
It’s a challenging role for Sally Hawkins and is one that inevitably, and unfairly, has been defined simply as ‘the woman who has sex with a fish.’ Such simplifications do not do justice for her powerful performance. The love story between the Elisa and AM, despite its occasionally lapses into saccharine territory, feels real largely on the strength of her performance. The time when she frustratingly tries to explain to her artist neighbour, and friend, Giles (Richard Jenkins) why she has to help AM escape is one of the films greatest scenes. The moment Elisa has to explain the attraction of having someone who understands her perspective, which Hawkins must do whilst signing her dialogue, is incredibly moving and should serve as a more fitting indication of the love shared between her and AM than the physical act she later engages in.
The Shape of Water does also boast an excellent supporting cast. The aforementioned Richard Jenkins as Giles is a fantastic accomplice to Elisa, coming to terms with losing his job and fantasising about the waiter at the local pie emporium. Octavia Spencer plays Zelda who shares cleaning duties with Elisa and appears to have taken up talking for the both of them whilst they work. These three, along with the sympathetic Dr Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), form the group that seek to liberate the captured AM from the US government behind the research laboratory where he is held.
Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon), the government agent who brought the amphibious creature in from the Amazon, sees only an ‘affront’ and something that should be tortured, studied and destroyed. Shannon brings the necessary dark to the light of Elisa’s love story. Strickland is a genuinely nasty piece of work and Shannon offers a fantastic portrayal of a man who will stop at nothing to carry out his job. His performance is so gruesomely captivating that the most memorable horror moments, reminiscent across all of Del Toro’s films, do not come from the Amphibian Man. Remarkable when you consider he eats a cat and removes two of Strickland’s fingers.
These dark and light moments throughout The Shape of Water make it a modern take on a fairy tale, akin to The Beauty and Beast story. The voiceover at the beginning and the end of the film adds further strength to this perspective. There is however is a gritty sense of realism within the film that stems from the paranoia of the era it’s set in. It’s unsurprising in this day and age to see films go for gritty reboot (see Nolan’s Batman films), but the realism in The Shape of Water stems from setting the film in the Cold War 1960’s where everyone was viewed with suspicion. In the age of Trump and a rising right wing across the world, it makes sense for Guillermo Del Toro to tap into this suspicion and paranoia of anyone who appears different from the norm. Especially when they are a bipedal amphibian man who likes hard boiled eggs.
The production design of this films is undoubtedly another positive of this film. The 1960’s era is beautifully realised through the green mechanised look of the research facility and the splendour of the flats above the cinema where Elisa and Giles live. Del Toro is undoubtedly a lover of classic cinema and he’s really at home in films where he can recreate sets that draw in to a particular era. You may find yourself wondering how Elisa can afford to live in such a large apartment, that she can flood on a whim, but it sure does look authentic and highly desirable.
With the success of The Shape of Water it would be nice to think that Hollywood is becoming more open to the world of fantasy and sci-fi as a means of telling amazing and unique stories. Indeed, The Shape of Water can probably be slightly criticised for feeling like a rehash of stories that have been told before. The story plays out in a way that is not particularly surprising. There are other fantasy and sci-fi films that arguably deserve to be recognised ahead of this film, including District 9, Arrival, and even Del Toro’s own Pan’s Labyrinth.
However, this should not take away from what is a beautifully crafted and lovingly told story that manages to capture your heart. Even if the story may be based on something we’ve seen before, the performances from an outstanding cast led by a visionary director elevate The Shape of Water into the surprising gem it is.
So…does it make it on to The Rotation?
It may not be Guillermo Del Toro’s best film, but the director does make even the most unusual subject matters worthy of repeated viewings. The film has a heart that surprises you and will undoubtedly make it on to The Rotation.