Guillermo Del Toro’s personal masterpiece, The Shape Of Water, is a monumental achievement in creative filmmaking. As he himself says, it is “a fairy tale for troubled times”. Set during the Cold War, this fiercely imaginative, gorgeously outlandish tale of an amphibian man bonding with a mute woman also proves to be surprisingly universal in its conveyance of emotions. It begins and ends with two breathtakingly filmed underwater shots that bookend the movie and underscore its central fairy-tale-meets-reality narrative of unapologetic beauty and wilfulness. Del Toro goes all out to craft a perfectly enchanting romantic melodrama, that portrays interspecies love with uncommon grace, while also carefully reflecting upon the human condition with themes exploring solitude, compassion, discrimination and loss. The film’s political background sets the stage for the central love story to shine through, at a time when the rest of the country was concerned with Russians and the space race along with tossing around trademark phrases like ‘man of the future’ and ‘welcome to the future’ et cetera.
The Shape Of Water may sound like a classic retelling of Beauty And The Beast (1991). But Del Toro merely borrows the idea and reshapes it into a spellbinding fairy-tale for adults with subtle political undertones, bolstered by ethereal music and impassioned performances.
Elisa Esposito’s lonely life is one of clockwork precision and mundane routine. She lives in a rented apartment above the Orpheum cinema, which struggles to find patrons, and works at the Occam aerospace research facility as a cleaner. An orphaned child, she was mute since the day she was found “by the river, in the water” with scars on her neck bearing testimony to some terrible misfortune. Her lonely life brightens up with the company of her two best friends ― her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), an old gay man struggling to survive as an artist and her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), an amusing and kind lady with the gift of the gab.
Her ordinary life takes a strange turn when Occam receives “the most sensitive asset ever to be housed in this facility” ― a huge metallic cylinder filled with water, with a part-human-part-amphibian creature inside. Dr Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) finds his scientific curiosity being prickled by this strange and wondrous beast, fished out of the Amazon. Ruthless government agent Strickland (played effortlessly by Michael Shannon), however, calls it “an affront” and would like nothing better than to mercilessly torture it to death. Amidst all the shock and awe, Elisa finds herself strangely drawn to the creature. She feeds it, plays music to it and even tries to communicate ― and it’s almost as if this alien-like creature understands Elisa better than anyone of her own species.
What follows is the most fantastical tale of affection, determination and compassion set as a race against the clock; one that juxtaposes the eerie beauty of forbidden love with the adrenaline-pumping tension of a spy thriller. Del Toro lets his creative vision run amok and conjures up a series of truly mesmerising images and words, that captures our imagination and takes us on a surreal joyride we never expected. Resplendent with bright colours and the 1960s production design, Elisa’s magical fate feels as real as the classic sight of Strickland ― the typical wealthy, white American male ― driving a new Cadillac. The core concept is obviously inspired from the classic monster movie from the 50s, Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954) and Hawkins’ mute performance cannot help but evoke Chaplin and Keaton’s brilliance during the Silent Era.
“The way he looks at me… he doesn’t know what I lack… or how I am incomplete. He just sees me for what I am. As I am.”
Del Toro does an excellent job with the screenplay (co-written by Game Of Thrones alumni, Vanessa Taylor) portraying the repetitiveness of Elisa’s life through recurring images of clocks, timers, calendars, alarms and boiling eggs. He infuses effortless humour with the mundanity of everyday routine, organically giving rise to comic elements that serve as a foil to the film’s darker themes. There’s also Elisa’s solitary bus ride where she tenderly places her head against the window, taking in the sights, that reaffirms her loneliness. Shannon’s character Strickland was very plausible as the electric cattle prod toting villainous (but dedicated) government agent. He reads ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’ and eats candy and might feel a bit too colourful at times, but Shannon keeps the portrayal effective without letting it devolve into caricature.
Stuhlbarg gives an understated performance as the curious and dutiful scientist while Octavia Spencer is delightful as the caring companion and a slightly-cliché comic relief. But the star of the cast was definitely Sally Hawkins with her sublime performance as the voiceless Elisa. The lack of dialogue never for a moment feels like a hindrance to her as she expresses a wide array of emotions ranging from fear, sadness and anger to longing, lust and mischief with the nodding of her head, a twitch of her eyebrows, her evocative eyes and heartbreaking smiles. Her performance, which is completely deserving of an Oscar win, should be used by aspiring actors as a lesson on acting through body language.
But despite all its refreshing glory, The Shape Of Water isn’t exactly flawless either. The amorous development between Elisa and the amphibian man needed more time at the lab in order to craft an emotional set-up that strongly justifies the life-risking decisions she undertakes eventually. As a result, the second half can feel rushed and a tad unengaging at times compared to the enthralling first half. One could almost blame the time spent on subplots that could’ve been used for this purpose.
Nevertheless, The Shape Of Water finishes just as strongly it began ― with a beautiful flourish of genuine emotion accompanying underwater shots, accentuated by haunting music and a narrative voiceover that evokes the title of the film. Alexandre Desplat’s soul-searching score reverberates throughout the film’s 123-minutes running time as Dan Laustsen’s camera floats around the characters and their lives, painting them in lavish strokes. The OST, which I can’t stop listening to on loop even as I write this review, features some extremely catchy numbers like Madeleine Peyroux’s La Javanaise and Glenn Miller’s evergreen I Know Why (And So Do You) which infect the film with a retro vibe.
“Unable to perceive the shape of You, I find You all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with Your love, it humbles my heart, for You are everywhere.”
The script does a wonderful job of creating plausible affection between the two unlikely outcasts ― because the creature cannot fathom human language, it is the only being who sees Elisa without her shortcoming… it sees her whole. And once you see past her muteness, you find a human full of emotion and desire and with a voice of her own, which is exactly what our amphibian friend discovered.
Elisa, on the other hand, naturally empathizes with the creature’s plight. When her friend Giles calls it “a freak”, she retorts back “And what am I? I move my mouth – like him – and I make no sound – like him. What does that make me?”. Elisa realizes that from the point of view of society, her place isn’t very different from that of the creature. And it is the only being that is patient enough for her and her idiosyncrasies. Del Toro’s striking visuals add immeasurable depth to such character interplay, as images and expressions convey more than words ever could. It is also remarkable how full-blooded the arcs of side-characters are, in this film. Whether it be Zelda’s husband Brewster or Giles’ fascination with the waiter at the local pie emporium, their stories feel whole in themselves and not like they exist simply to serve the central arc.
Director of the critically-acclaimed masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Guillermo Del Toro proves his mettle as an auteur, in the truest sense of that word, composing poetry on celluloid borne out of his rich sense of aesthetics. The Shape Of Water is a film that should only be seen at a good theatre, immersing oneself in all of its sights and sounds, disappearing from the outside world into this realm of magical realism for a couple of hours. Many years shall pass, many films will be made but this magical journey shall be etched forever in our hearts ― an unlikely tale of love where an amphibian creature, shunned by others, helps a lonesome mute janitor find her voice. Literally.
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When not watching films or TV series, Shaswata can usually be found either reviewing them or battling writer’s block. His obsession lies with framing and composition in cinema, something he explores by capturing the most memorable moments through screenshots and sharing them on social media.