The Shape of Water (2017)
Written by Guillermo del Toro & Vanessa Taylor
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Elisa Esposito lives in Baltimore circa the early 1960s. She is mute since birth and works as a cleaning woman at a government laboratory. Her only friends are Zelda, a fellow cleaner, and Giles, her neighbor who is a closeted gay man. One night while working, a new specimen is brought into the lab by Colonel Strickland. The creature was discovered in the South American rainforest and is a humanoid fish person. Elisa feels a connection to this poor animal and worries as Strickland oversees his torture. A plan begins to develop, and Elisa becomes determined to help her new friend escape this nightmare existence.
The concept of The Shape of Water isn’t necessarily a highly original concept. It’s Beauty and the Beast mixed with any number of 80s/90s rescue genre of film (E.T., Free Willy) with stylistic shades of Amelie. What helps the movie stand out is the particular artistic direction of Guillermo del Toro. While the film has a setting that is in the real world, the art direction makes the story feel timeless and like a fairy tale. Del Toro employed the same aesthetic in my favorite of his films, Pan’s Labyrinth. Nothing ever feels anachronistic though, more like a fairy tale version of the 1960s, but with references to the strife underneath the surface (racism, homophobia). It comes just up to the edge of becoming heavy handed with those references but holds back from ending up preachy, thankfully.
Sally Hawkins as Elisa does a pretty fantastic job. She gives an (almost) wordless performance and delivers something powerfully emotional. I’m always saying the best actors are the ones who can communicate through reaction or in silence and Hawkins proves she is one of them. It’s straightforward to display high emotion with words (see Margot Robbie in I, Tonya), but the real challenge is in communicating anger, sadness, joy, love, etc. without being able to speak. Hawkins has to rely on her face and body language to deliver some very complicated thoughts and feelings to the audience, and it works perfectly.
Hawkins’ counterpoint in the film is Strickland, played by Michael Shannon. Shannon is becoming an actor who gets used often but not always towards his strengths. Films like this and Midnight Special show directors who understand that Shannon is a master at playing characters slowly spiraling downward, quiet in their anger at first, just simmering. Then when everything collapses beneath them, they lose all veneer of control and rage in almost an animalistic way. Shannon is very similar to the character of Captain Vidal in Pan’s Labyrinth. They are both tyrannical and prone to use violence as a means of intimidation and punishment. Vidal’s motivations are a bit clearer though, and other than looking a fool to his superior officer I didn’t quite understand why Strickland did what he did. There was dialogue that hinted at conservative religious motivation, but that isn’t developed in any meaningful way. He seems like he is evil just for there to be a bad guy in the movie, and I would have liked to have understood why he was so angry.
The most significant problems with The Shape of Water are a lack of subtly with the themes and ideas being presented. We are meant to buy into the love story between Elisa and the fish creature, but the creature gets zero character development. We can’t say it was because of a wordless performance because Elisa is in the same boat. So little time is focused on justifying the bond between these two that it ends up feeling like she is just caught up in a desire for him. There is a scene where she communicates to Giles that the creature sees past her inability to speak and into her inner self, but I never saw that on screen. I wanted the love story to feel rich and full, but the film only seems to present it regarding sexual attraction, which is disappointing. The Shape of Water is lush and beautiful film, but without substantial ideas and character development beneath the surface.