Review: The Shape of Water (2017)
In a screenplay by director Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, this Oscar-nominated feature length provides an insight into American life in the 60s from the perspective of a mute woman, as well as delving deep into relatively unchartered romantic territory. If you’re able to look beyond the surrealist narrative, The Shape of Water is a wonderfully strange adaptation of the fairy-tale. Think Beauty and the Beast, but with a heightened sense of sexuality, a heavy measure of magic realism, and without the archetypal ‘beauty’.
Water, unsurprisingly, is consistently present. Del Toro uses it as a motif to signify connections between characters, as a symbol of fear, as well as using it to represent complete liberation. Water floods the screen in the opening shot, as the camera floats through the protagonist’s flat and layered waves of Alexandre Desplat’s score introduce themes of intrigue and romance with a distinctly French accordion melody and beguiling whistle, which has a somewhat hypnotic effect.
Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is the lead character, but we first hear the endearing voice of her best friend and neighbour, Giles, played by Richard Jenkins. His opening voiceover questions what exactly he can tell us about the story which unfolds because, frankly, it walks a very thin line between being endearing and completely bonkers. However, as one of the main settings is introduced – an autospace research facility where Elisa works – more of the science fiction elements are unveiled and the verisimilitude increases, making the central storyline a lot more believable. A de-saturated palette of greens and blues (and a symbolically important teal) create a colour bridge which connect Elisa’s home life with her place of work and, later on, the object of her desire.
Although there is no doubt that the production design on this film is extraordinary and the musical score daunting in the most wonderful way, some of its characters might prove to be divisive. Firstly, there’s a racist ‘Pie Guy’ and Octavia Spencer’s traitorous on-screen husband, Brewster. Then there’s Richard Strickland, a cruel and abusive sadist responsible for bringing an ‘asset’ to the facility so that the USA can excel in the Space Race. His determination to succeed is superficial, built on pseudo-intelligence and he commits some truly rotten deeds. In many ways, del Toro’s fixation with monsters is more evident in this hideous character than in the amphibious creature chained up in a tank.
However, at the core of the film is a goodness which emanates from Elisa. Her modest and somewhat lonely existence is enriched by her friends; in particular, her co-worker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer) who signs for her, saves her space in the clocking-in queue and generally brightens every room with her witty stream of commentary. They share such a close bond that Elisa only needs to shoot Zelda a glance as they’re walking down a corridor with their cleaning trollies in order to communicate a feeling, thought or revelation. In one such moment, Zelda is completely unfazed when she finds out about her friend’s intimate relations. Giles also accepts Elisa for all that she is, but as neighbours who almost cohabit, their relationship enjoys a mutual reliance: she assures him that his artwork is of value and makes sure he eats; he provides entertainment, companionship and pudding.
Elisa herself is fascinating. Though living a simple life in a sequence of routines, she finds beauty in nature and the minutia of life (see the shot of her tracing droplets of rain on the side of a bus window in the trailer), and embraces a being many would dismiss as grotesque and dangerous. That is not to say that she is spineless by any means: she possesses a fight within her and is defiant in the face of evil. Her curiosity grows throughout the film as does her level of empathy for the amphibian-beast-man. As this develops into something more, rather than dwelling on everything that might be ‘wrong’ with the unusual relationship, through del Toro’s and Taylor’s screenplay and Dan Laustsen’s cinematic vision, the focus becomes extremely sentimental: they create a realistic vision of a woman who has found someone who truly understands her.
Swinging between a nostalgic longing for bygone eras (Giles even states in a moment of self-loathing that he feels like he was born at the wrong time) and a desperate desire to progress technologically, the Cold War setting is a clever way of creating a pervasive tension. Whether it is a tension in relationships, sound or politics, instead, what repeatedly prevails is Elisa’s abandonment of normality in exchange for an enchanting, forbidden love.
The wider significance of a lead female character saving a monster is just one of the elements that makes this film so captivating. Its allure will no doubt leave a long-lasting impression and whether audiences absorb The Shape of Water literally or metaphorically, it ultimately doesn’t matter. Either way, it is a film drenched in irresistible visual and sonic poetry.
Verdict: Are 13 Oscar nominations over-egging this romantic fantasy? Nope. It goes deep.
Big screen appeal? 🎬🎬🎬
Accolade eligibility? 💡💡💡💡💡
Director: Guillermo del Toro
UK release date: 14th February 2018