Film Review: ‘The Shape of Water’ is Incandescent


{All images used courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures.}

Note: this article was also published on Tea & Fiction.

The Shape of Water, written by Guillermo del Toro & Vanessa Taylor, directed by Guillermo del Toro. Produced by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Copyright 2017. (Seen December 5, 2017.)

You ever read a book where the writing is so glorious it almost distracts from the plot of the book? Where you spend just as much time admiring the writing as you do thinking about the actual book? The Shape of Water is a gloriously filmed movie, with absolutely gorgeous cinematography — almost to the point of it being a distraction.

Set during the Cold War, The Shape of Water is del Toro’s take on the fairy tale. We are introduced to Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman. She works alongside Zelda (Octavia Spencer) during the night shift at a government facility as a cleaning woman. She lives with Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted gay man who does artwork for advertisements, watching musicals and variety shows on television. And every day is the same.

Every day is the same, that is, until Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) is introduced, having acquired ‘the asset’ in South America for the facility to study. At first, we only see a container with water, with movements indicating some sort of creature. But one evening, Elisa is cleaning the room it is in, and meets him (Doug Jones).

At first, it’s a friendship: she sees him as a bit of a pet, trying to tame it and not wanting to see him hurt. But, this is at heart a fairy tale, and so the friendship turns to love as Elisa explains to Giles at one point that the amphibian man (as he is listed on IMDB) is the only person to not care that she is mute, and sees her for who she is.

Well, what’s a fairy tale without a good old-fashioned villain? Of course, Strickland doesn’t trust the amphibian man, thinking of it as only a creature. And as it’s set during the Cold War, there are Russians after him as well: not because they are interested in what they can learn, but just to stop America from learning anything. However, Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) — supposedly an American scientist at the base to study the amphibian man — is actually part of the Russian team, but still is interested in what he could learn.

Sally Hawkins and Richard Jenkins.

Elisa decides to save the amphibian man, and gets help (albeit reluctantly) from Zelda and Giles. And the rest follows your fairy tale endings.

I admit: I was a little concerned about seeing The Shape of Water. I am a del Toro fan, don’t get me wrong, and Pan’s Labyrinth (which this had been compared to in many a description and was presented as a fairy tale as well) — while a beautiful movie — is so heart-wrenching that I have only seen it the one time, even though I own it on DVD. While I’m fine with sad movies, at the same time, with 2017 being the way it has been, I really didn’t need any more emotionally draining moments currently. But while I did cry, it was a good kind of cry: a catharsis that was also happy.

The movie, as mentioned, is gloriously filmed. The use of color — especially blue — is an art, and every frame where Hawkins and Jones are together is soft and warm. There is also a theme of musicals and variety shows, and there is one scene with that in mind that is sweet and yet has a huge emotional punch on multiple levels. And let’s not forget the deliberate shoutouts to The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

del Toro does an excellent job of directing this with the female gaze in mind. While I’ve tried staying away from other reviews, I couldn’t help but see a couple that commented that some male reviewers were confused that Elisa would deliberately choose a fish creature over a man. Doug Jones’ makeup / costume does a great job of accentuating his body with the female gaze in mind. (See this comic for an example of how the female gaze can differ.)

While yes, we do get some full frontal female nudity, Hawkins is presented naked not for titillation, but to show that she has a sexual nature. We see her masturbate in the bathtub in the first five minutes as part of her ‘daily routine’, and it’s part of the overall story of showing that she is just as much a woman as any, despite the inability to speak verbally.

Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones.

The acting is excellent across the board. Jones, of course, gets a special shout out for yet another portrayal of a ‘creature who is actually more like a human’. (I have made the joke more than once that he and Andy Serkis need to do a film together where we see THEM.) As usual, the way he moves his body — not just his hands and arms, but even little things like straightening his back — is a beautiful blend of animal and human. Hawkins, meanwhile, does an excellent job of conveying EXCACTLY what she is saying despite not being verbal, and has such a great range. Spencer and Jenkins both do a good job of playing the sidekick (and Jenkins is surprisingly adorable as well).

My only complaint is that Shannon’s character is a little too over-the-top evil. He shows not-so-casual racism to Zelda, threatens sexual assault on Elisa, and is constantly calling the amphibian man a creature. He is the epitome of a villain, chewing the scenery left and right. It’s pretty apparent we’re supposed to hate him, and there is no nuance to his character as a result. With that big of a villain, he doesn’t get nearly the comeuppance I was hoping for.

However, it is a very minor complaint in an otherwise excellent movie, one of the best I have seen this year. The movie releases nationally on December 8, and more information can be found at Fox Searchlight’s official website.

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