Written by Vanessa Taylor and Guillermo del Toro and directed by del Toro, “The Shape of Water” is a superbly dark fairy tale submerged in science fiction sensibilities with romantic shades throughout. I may have wrote my ‘Favorites of 2017‘ piece before seeing this movie, but trust me when I say that this would definitely have been included. This is del Toro’s most visually arresting film since Pan’s Labyrinth and will likely be a favorite among cinephiles for years to come. So, how did a story about a woman falling in love with an amphibious creature end up working so well?
The film’s opening evokes Andrei Tarkovsky’s dreamlike imagery from The Mirror of a woman sleeping suspended above her bed, but here it is with Sally Hawkin’s Elisa dreaming undisturbed in an underwater version of her apartment. This was an excellent indicator going forward of the love that this film has with cinema itself. Guillermo del Toro himself describes the film as a love poem to cinema, and this is doubly evident throughout the film’s runtime. Creature from the Black Lagoon, King Kong, even E.T. all feel sampled from in this story, but never in a way that feels like a tired pastiche or an endless homage to other movies. No, while this film is in love with other movies, it is definitively telling it’s own story.
The quick and dirty premise of the film is that Elisa, a mute, and her coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) work at a government research facility in the early 1960’s as part of the cleaning crew during the night. Soon after we’ve been introduced to the characters and the world that they live in, we’re introduced to the secondary lead in Doug Jones’ amphibious river god dragged from the Amazon for research purposes. One thing leads to another and the two voiceless leads soon fall for each other and plot an escape.
The entire cast gives memorable and impressive performances throughout. Even the smaller characters like David Hewlett’s corporate underling working for Michael Shannon’s villainous Strickland has a specific anxiety and tone about him that makes his character stand out. Speaking of Strickland, Michael Shannon gives us one of his best villains to date with this character. We’re introduced to Strickland while Elisa and Zelda are cleaning the men’s bathroom and from this scene we discover everything we need to know about how he functions within the story. He’s a determined, narrowly focused, and arrogant man with a penchant for cruelty.
The heroes of the story, though, are all societal rejects. Elisa’s a mute woman, Zelda’s a black woman in the early 1960’s, Giles (Elisa’s neighbor and friend) is a gay artist, and a Russian spy who cares more for an innocent creature than his own national allegiances. The most impressive of the bunch however is Sally Hawkins as Elisa. She gives the performance of a lifetime in this film. She has to emote, communicate, and convey not only her character’s inner feelings, but also her intentions to other characters within her world. This film isn’t afraid of itself, or of any kind of expression. It is bold in its’ time spent with Hawkins’ Elisa, we get to know her on a very intimate level as we’re the quiet observers of her daily routines and who she values in her life.
While the film does hold many dreamlike and fantastical sensibilities, it definitely earns it’s R rating. Del Toro expertly balances this shifting of tones between the romanticism of Hawkins and Jones and the volatile hatred within Strickland resulting in a clear and present danger for the heroes involved. The tension is perfectly held taught by these real possibilities of violence, and the editing is also cleverly stitched together for maximum momentum. The American and Russian officials involved are invested in the asset as they find that it can communicate without language while also having two sets of breathing apparatus for functioning in both water and air. They want to find any and all information that could lead them to winning the space race.
The score goes a long way to infuse the feeling of the film with dreamy ethereal tones that wouldn’t be out of place in a romance set during the 1920’s in Paris. The production design is a fully realized world set in a fantasy version of 1962 America during the height of the Cold War, it enlargens and emphasizes the military might funding the facility. There are large winding pipes criss-crossing nearly every set in the facility, while Elisa and Giles apartments look authentically lived in trading the banal whites and steel grays of the research facility for more earthy and warm colors. Not to mention that they live above an old theater with a gigantic marque outside lighting up the rainy streets below. The color palette as a whole is drenched in every possible shade of green. It almost feels as if Guillermo created new shades of the color just for this film-it’s quite the visual feast of colors.
The story is in love with art and cinema, that much is clear. I’m betting this will only ensnare more minds and eyes into a love of film and filmmaking. The film even ends with a poem. Romanticism is boundless within this picture, and I loved every minute I shared with it, go check this one out if you can find it- it’s one of the best films that 2017 had to offer!
“When I think of her, of Elisa, all that comes to mind is a poem, made of just a few truthful words, whispered by someone in love, hundreds of years ago: ‘Unable to perceive the shape of you, I find you all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with your love. It humbles my heart, for you are everywhere.’ ”
Final Score: Two lovers, One mute and One fish