The winner of four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, The Shape of Water throughly merited this acclaim with its imaginative and universal story, beautifully haunting direction from Guillermo del Toro and top notch performances from an outstanding cast of actors. Plus, it stands as one of Guillermo del Toro’s finest films put to screen.
The year is 1962 and in a coastal area of Baltimore, Maryland, Elisa Esposito(Sally Hawkins)lives above a picture house that screens old movies to a pretty absent audience. She has been mute since childhood when she was found by the river with marking on her neck. An orphan who lives an ordered, almost ritualistic life, Elisa’s forms of companionship are closeted gay artist Giles(Richard Jenkins) and wise cracking and loyal co-worker Zelda Fuller(Octavia Spencer). Elisa and Zelda work in a government facility as cleaners, where they are expected to make things tidy and not ask any questions about the goings on within their workplace. One day, the facility has an arrival of a humanoid creature(Doug Jones) that comes courtesy of the finding of nasty government agent Colonel Strickland(Michael Shannon). He is head of the operation regarding investigating the creature, which mainly involves torturing it as he sees it as unholy, yet who himself is a self righteous hypocrite. Elisa becomes curious about the creature and begins to spend time with it. The creature responds to her and though it doesn’t talk either, they find a way to communicate with one another. Over time, a genuine love forms between them. This places her in danger as the people higher up than Strickland want to vivisect the creature and an enigmatic scientist by the name of Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) has his own motives for studying the humanoid. Elisa, feeling emboldened by her newfound love and understanding, decides to help the humanoid escape. Though this is not going to be an easy operation and Strickland has grown suspicious of her and the consequences could be deadly for Elisa if she does not succeed in saving her lover.
From the moment The Shape of Water opens with a submerged dream sequence involving Elisa’s water filled apartment and with narration from Giles, you know it’s a film by the masterful Guillermo del Toro. His strong presence and boundless imagination are on full display, twinned with a sensitive story of acceptance, love across the boundaries and understanding of what is deemed different. He was rightly rewarded with an Oscar for his poetic direction of this dark yet endearing movie that pays homage to monster movies of the 50’s, old Hollywood and Cold War intrigue, all wrapped in the confines of his exceptional vision. The Shape of Water is many things that it can be difficult to classify it as it mixes intense thriller suspense, socially aware drama and budding romance. His script, co written with Vanessa Taylor, grounds fantasy in a historical prism, exploring prejudice within the narrative. The main players in the story are all deemed outsiders;Elisa is mute, Giles is having to conceal his sexuality and Zelda faces adversity due to her skin colour. By featuring this aspect, it seems wholly appropriate that Elisa would find solace in the arms of a humanoid creature, who himself is tortured for being different at the hands of the ignorance of others. The message of accepting everyone’s differences and uniqueness is rendered excellently into the fantasy realm with a very human touch that’s simply irresistible. The Shape of Water is a beautifully engaging and unusual fairy tale, that retains a sense of almost childlike curiosity and wonder but is definitely a fantasy for mature audiences owing to violence, brutality and sexuality displayed in the story. This is aided by amazing, award winning production design that captures a darkness of the 60’s in terms of historical context and the ravishing cinematography( blue, green and red feature heavily) that transport us into the distant past via a fantasy romance that’s not afraid to be strikingly adult or daring. Alexandre Desplat earned his second Oscar for his sublime score that captures a wistful, romantic longing and sense of dreamlike joy, coupled with darkness and action when events start to deepen and the stakes of the story increase.
One of the strongest aspects of The Shape of Water is the sensationally talented cast it boasts. Front and centre is the talented Sally Hawkins, who never lets me down when it comes to convincing acting that feels so true. She’s required to not speak a word, but displays a silent symphony of feelings from quiet delight, aching sadness and growing, admirable bravery in an exquisite anchoring portrayal. You buy all of this because of just how darn good Sally Hawkins is in this part. Hawkins injects Elisa with a deep humanity and sense of authenticity that it stands as one of her finest performances that truly shines in this romantic fantasy. She’s the beating heart of The Shape of Water and it simply wouldn’t be the same without her layered performance of dazzling emotion and winning, hopeful clarity. Hawkins is supported delightfully by Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer as the two people closest to her. Jenkins, who has been one of the most reliable character actors in what seems like forever, gives life and pathos to his acting as the artist having to suppress his sexuality in a world of ignorance. He’s something special here it must be said with his notes of humour and sympathy splendidly telegraphed. Octavia Spencer also brings her A-game as the loquacious best friend with attitude and conviction. You feel the energy of Spencer and also her understanding of the part, which shows her as tough but deep down longing, hurting yet extremely loyal to those closest and willing to defend them until the end. All three actors were rightfully nominated for Oscars for their respective performances here and they were much deserved.
As the Amphibian creature, Doug Jones, although covered entirely in a scaly suit and make up, brings out a curiosity and sinuous movement in his role. It’s a credit to him that we see the soul of the misunderstood creature and that’s high praise indeed. Although the humanoid is seen as the monster in the story, that title actually the fits the part of the vicious Strickland, played by the incredibly reliable Michael Shannon. He’s excellent as the bible spouting, bullying government agent who always needs to be in control. Shannon is fine when giving voice to Strickland’s frustrations and nastiness, but it’s often when he is silent with emerging rage and intensity that he’s most riveting to watch. Not to say that he’s better at one than the other, he’s amazing at blending both but there’s just something about the way he uses body language and his face that really sells it. Michael Stuhlbarg displays his skills as a secretive scientist with more going on that it seems behind the appearance of studious investigation. He’s nicely understated with his subtle turn as a man who ends up conflicted on what to do with regards to the creature.
A beguilingly unusual but very touching fantasy romance about acceptance, love and bravery, The Shape of Water is a different but enthralling film that knows how to move the audience with its story, compelling craftsmanship by Guillermo del Toro and simply stellar cast, headed by the sublime Sally Hawkins.