Film Review: The Shape of Water (2017)
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Review by: Belle McIntyre
This curiously original film was such a delicious and unexpected surprise for me. The Shape of Water is a period piece of extraordinarily rendered detail, effectively crafted to bring you into a strange world that explores the possibility of an interspecies love story between a partially-humanoid amphibian found in the Amazon jungle and a lonely young woman. The connection which develops between these two creatures evolves from her empathy and compassion for the terrible treatment which she sees meted out on the “asset” - a term used by his handlers which reveals their insensitivity to the humanity which she senses in the creature. When she secretly begins to show kindness toward him, he responds in ways that touch her isolated, lonely heart and awakens hope and longing for connection.
Dan Lausten’s ravishing cinematography creates a moody atmosphere with low dappled greenish-tinged lighting which lingers selectively, illuminating elaborately art directed sets with an extraordinarily authentic attention to detail. This is pure visual pleasure which also serves to reveal the reality of the two main characters who are loners and largely invisible to those around them. Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a shy, young, single mute woman who works on the janitorial staff of a secret government site which is engaged in top security Cold War projects in 1962 Baltimore. Her life is one of routine monotony but for the friendship of Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a colleague at work who talks a blue streak and looks out for Elisa in a protective and caring way. Her only other friend is Giles (Richard Jenkins), an avuncular neighbor, who is a struggling graphic designer and closeted gay man. Both of these friends understand sign language and are the only friends that Elisa has in her life.
As Elisa’s fantasies about the creature (a very appealing Doug Jones with slime and scales) intensify, it simultaneously becomes clear that he is in danger from those, who have brought him out of the jungle. He has become a bargaining chip between the two cold war powers, in particular the Russian scientist, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlberg), who values him, and wants to save him, and Strickland (Michael Shannon), the malevolent autocratic American who is heading the project and guarding his position as if his life depended on it. He is a company man who follows orders without questioning his superiors. He does not have an internal moral compass. Therefore when he is ordered to destroy the creature, he has no qualms.
This is the point where the film takes off into fantasyland. I was reminded of the film Okja, involving a cloned porker, who was slated for the slaughter house, but for the intervention of those who had found the creature to be lovable and sentient and were willing to stage a daring rescue and thwart the powerful to do the right thing. The creature-napping in this film is both audacious and bonkers and triggers some nasty repercussions, but not before the love story is able to play itself out in the most wonderful, old-fashioned, fairy tale romantic way. It definitely veers into Disney territory and we are too hooked to object. Del Toro has masterfully immersed us in the painstakingly-created banality of 1960’s America and then transported us willingly into the submerged world of watery fantasy with virtuoso old-fashioned looking special effects, swirling cinematography, gorgeous production values and evocative music by Alexandre Desplat. The willing suspension of disbelief has been accomplished with great aplomb and it is a delight to behold.