From the incredible mind of Guillermo del Toro comes the Best Picture winning The Shape of Water, an adult fairytale following mute Eliza (Sally Hawkins) who works as a cleaner in a government lab and falls in love with a creature (Doug Jones) who is held captive for experiments. Working with various parties including her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), best friend and colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and scientist Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stulbarg) Eliza seeks to break the creature out and escape with him despite the efforts from the evil Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the man who captured the creature in the first place. There are a lot of moving pieces in this film but that’s not to say it’s difficult to follow. It gives the film multiple layers and changing motives and sides makes it exciting to watch. The film is definitely del Toro’s best since Pan’s Labyrinth and has become an instant classic. His direction and script are beautifully sharp and consistent with the universe he wants to create. Everything has been carefully thought through from the Baltimore setting to the oceanic colour palette. It’s no coincidence that we first see Eliza in a room of deep green hues and Richard covered in bright red blood. It’s a striking visual representation of which characters are good and evil.
The characters are fantastically developed, particularly Eliza. Hawkins brings a career best as the movie loving dreamer who longs to find love. Eliza leads a simple life which we gain a glimpse of as we view her morning routine which consists of boiling eggs, running a bath and masturbating. The genius of this character is that Hawkins physicality allows Eliza to be expressive and can communicate her emotion with a simple glance. Eliza is fearless when encountering the creature. She is unfazed by the blood and threatening build of the creature and instead encourages it to get close to her so she can teach it sign language and music. One of the most intense scenes comes when she is asked where the creature is and she signs “FUCK YOU” to Strickland. The latter is naturally confused as her signing as he does not understand and it creates a truly terrifying moment as Eliza takes control of the situation. Eliza knows when to take advantage of her condition and is deeply observant of those around her. Her main development comes in the form of rejecting everyone else’s wishes and learning to do what she wants. She subverts the traditional idea of love and finds her identifying more with the creature than humans because they can communicate and understand each other in ways that Eliza can’t with other humans.
The supporting cast also perform a stellar job and there isn’t a particular highlight because everyone does a fantastic job. The support cast is male-dominated due to Eliza’s job working in a government facility in 1920s Baltimore. Working in the facility are Strickland and Hoffstetler on opposing sides of the creature’s treatment. Shannon is truly evil in his role bringing the scariest performance of his career. His presence onscreen immediately brings silence as there is an unpredictability to his character. He is strict on control and when Hoffstetler threatens the slightest bit of control, this bothers him. Stulbarg’s performance is one of tenderness and concern. He winces at the sight of violence and blood which is unusual for a man with his profession. Stulbarg’s performance is layered with multiple characters and motivations. His stance and reasoning is even more unpredictable than Strickland’s. On the other hand there are Zelda and Giles who reluctantly go with Eliza’s plans. Earning Oscar nominations for their Supporting performances, Spencer and Jenkins provide Eliza’s voice at times when she needs it. Each actor is cast perfectly as they embody their roles perfectly. Zelda and Giles are also members of minorities themselves with Zelda being black and Giles being openly homosexual. Together, the trio help to support each other in a society that is dominated by the straight white men.
Music is such a crucial part of this film as it gives Eliza a voice when she doesn’t have assistance. In scenes where she communicates with the creature, she uses a record player to convey her emotions towards him. The soundtrack is a mix of classical original score and songs from the 1920s that were used in television specials and films. Not only does it give the film it’s chronological context but it also allows del Toro to delve into his own love of Old Hollywood and push this personal perspective to the front. In terms of the score, we are treated to a fantastic selection of pieces composed by Alexandre Desplat. Just like the film, the score is a mix of genres taking mainly from fantasy by adding in the whimsy of musical and light and dark tones to reflect comedy and drama. It’s a truly captivating soundtrack and well worth the second Oscar that Desplat received.
As I have mentioned before, the cinematography is fantastic. The film is quintessentially del Toro with his distinctive use of colour and impeccable ability to build his own universes. The audience is immediately immersed from the first shot when we see Eliza’s apartment underwater as Giles narrates in a fairytale manner. What works so well is that del Toro easily merges the fantasy with the real by making his world as realistic as possible but adding whimsical qualities. There are some gory scenes in the film and as expected, del Toro doesn’t shy away from showing the audience this but it’s because of the film’s primary genre being fantasy, it doesn’t feel overwrought or overwhelming to those who don’t like horror films. The film feels suitable for any genre because the topics are so universal and the vision so distinctive.
There are few films that impact me so much immediately but after I viewed The Shape of Water, I completely fell in love with everything about it. It was wonderful seeing del Toro deliver a film that feels so personal and poignant. The film feels like del Toro’s love letter for films and the many influences such as The Creature from the Black Lagoon are really felt here.
What do you think about The Shape of Water? Let me know in the comments below!