Set amid rising tensions with the Russians in the 1960s, Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water follows a relationship that buds between Elisa Esposito, a mute janitor at an American Research facility, and an amphibious creature held in captivity by the facility’s head, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Risking their lives, Elisa and her friends set out to rescue the creature from Strickland’s clutches. Meanwhile, the thunderous impact of the romance between Elisa and the creature grows stronger.
To call the film anything but daring would compromise the message it relays in the context of our world today. The film presents a relationship that time and again challenges what it means to fall in love in modern times. It aims to recognise love for how different it can be from one person to the other. And while it may seem like a voyage of extraordinary love, the romance at the tale’s core is quite simple; it neither begs to be understood nor claims to be life-affirming.
And this is largely because of the delivery of the main performance. Never has Sally Hawkins been better than she was in The Shape of Water. Playing a mute character renders the role a lot more physical. And in her silence and physicality, Hawkin’s Elisa manages to say much more than the entire cast put together. From the looks and smiles she steals to the scenes she shares with the creature, Elisa creates a captivating world for herself that is finely-tuned and melodic, almost. To stand out so much in a movie so visually-spellbinding and thematically-rich is a formidable feat for Hawkins who, once again, proves she is a force in the business.
While her romantic relationship is beautifully and subtly delivered, Elisa becomes infatuated with the creature all too quickly. In a telling moment, she questions the meaning of being human if that does not extend to helping another — in this case, her peculiar love interest. Being told that Elisa loves the creature, no matter how apparent that is, somewhat robs the viewer of the experience of coming to terms with that love.
Had the scene come later, when Elisa’s romance carried more weight, it would have been much more powerful a moment. This is mirrored in several points in the story. Saying less — regardless of whether there is a case to make for amplifying the mute character’s voice — is sometimes more. And that ultimately takes away from the sweeping magic the film promises.
A few known stars deliver performances in supporting roles such as (a wonderful) Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer — whose roles are now starting to become variations of one another — Michael Shannon, and Michael Stuhlbarg. While the actors all do a solid job, it’s important to give due to Stuhlbarg. The actor delivered a trifecta of impeccable performances this year in Call Me By Your Name, The Post, and, of course, The Shape of Water, but has failed to garner much-deserved attention for it.
Such is fortunately not the case for Guillermo Del Toro, whose direction invites an endless amount of praise. Aided by Alexandre Desplat’s magical score, Dan Laustsen’s haunting cinematography, Paul D. Austerberry’s production design, Sidney Wolinsky’s masterful editing, and the diligent work of the visual effects army, Del Toro transports his viewer across genre and time. In doing so, he features elements of silent cinema, musicals, and — faithful to his own filmography — a touch of fantastical cinema. He does with The Shape of Water what last year’s Best-Director-winner Damien Chazelle did with La La Land, telling a story and also paying homage to various forms of cinema. The result is a visually, musically, and technically stunning work.
What do we say when we do not say anything at all? That is the question that The Shape of Water attempts to answer time and again. Though the film’s unnecessary backdrop and countless subplots bring it down, it remains a cinematically-visceral big-screen experience. In falling in love, Elisa embarks on a life-changing journey to find her voice.