The Shape of Water
By: Arlene Allen
The Shape of Water is the latest cinematic fairy tale from Guillermo del Toro, a man whose creative imagination has been taking us to places unknown and opening our eyes to wonder for the past couple of decades. The Shape of Water is certainly one of his best endeavors and absolutely one of the most romantic. It is in every way, shape and form a work of beauty and a work that celebrates beauty and all of its differences.
As the film opens, we’re introduced to Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman who lives in a small, ordinary apartment above a movie theater. She has her daily routine all laid out – eat breakfast (usually cornflakes and boiled eggs), make a sack lunch for work, take a long relaxing and erotic bath and check in on her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a painter who lives with an untold number of cats. They sit and watch old movies together, especially old musicals, and it’s clear they both love them. Elisa does not seem unhappy with her life, despite the fact that she cannot speak and the three scars on either side of her neck that mark her as different.
Elisa works at a top-secret government laboratory as a cleaning woman. Her best friend is Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who cares enough about Eliza to cover for her even when she’s late. While working on a particularly gruesome cleanup in a lab, Elisa discovers the lab’s “asset” – an amphibian man that is being “studied” (read being cruelly mistreated) by the project’s overseer Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon).
Richard Strickland is one of the best screen villains to come along in a long, long time. There’s nothing supernatural about him; he’s just grassroots mean and cruel. He treats people like they’re less than dirt on the bottom of his shoe and he makes no bones about it. He’s a racist, a bigot and a sexual predator. The loathing you will feel every time you see him on the screen can’t be understated. Of course, he delights in torturing the “amphibian man” (Doug Jones) and can’t wait to vivisect him.
Elisa has different plans. Her kindness and compassion allow her to reach out to the creature and an unlikely relationship forms. The creature obviously is intelligent and is able to communicate in his own fashion, much to the delight of Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stulhlbarg) who is also studying the creature, but for far different reasons. He is fascinated with the progress Eliza is making.
Then, all hell breaks loose and what follows is a tense, nail biting game of cat and mouse between Elisa and Giles, Zelda and Amphibian Man, Dr. Hoffstetler and sinister Strickland. There’s no way to see where this film is going. You so desperately want a happy ending, but can’t for the life of you figure out how del Toro is going to be able to give you one.
There’s also a subtle layer of social commentary. A black couple is refused service at a diner, the advances of a gay man are greeted with something that goes beyond utter revulsion and (of course) the ethnic cleaning staff is considered less than human. The film is set in the 1950s, but reminds us we still have so much work to do to create a true egalitarian society. You can’t help but feel for Eliza, Zelda and Giles because they are all living in a world that doesn’t really accept them. The Amphibian Man is just the most obvious example of what society wants to do to the different.
The soundtrack for the film is perfect. The dreamy, fairytale-like score by Alexandre Desplat highlights and emphasizes the ethereal, fairytale like atmosphere of the film. The uses of 1950s musicals and songs adds a certain joie de vivre – it reminds us that people can find happiness in even the smallest of things.
The creature itself is amazing. His expressive face and eyes will win you over in no time whatsoever. You simply just can’t help but root for him and Eliza all the way through the film.
I’ve seen some reviews and reviewers questioning the film’s ending, but I had no problem with it. The clues are there throughout the film and if you pay attention you will pick up on them all. And you should be paying attention. Del Toro never wastes a moment of screen time – every moment counts. The Shape of Water is a gloriously beautiful film, a treat for all of the senses. Don’t miss it!