Summary from IMDb
At a top-secret research facility in the 1960s, a lonely janitor forms a unique relationship with an amphibious creature that is being held in captivity.
The Shape of Water is a 2017 American fantasy drama directed by Guillermo del Toro and starring Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito, a mute custodian who communicates through sign language. Her condition is possibly related to the mysterious scars on her neck she has had since infancy. The film apparently drew a lot of inspiration from del Toro’s childhood memories of seeing Creature from the Black Lagoon and wishing the creature’s romantic interest in co-star Julie Adams’s character worked out.
I had been wanting to see this movie for a while. It’s been out since late last year, yet it has only just gotten distribution in my neck of the woods due to a limited release. Perhaps it thanks to all the Oscar buzz the film is now getting that it came out here. Regardless I was grateful to finally be able to watch it. I was drawn in by its openly weird premise and how promising it looked. I didn’t just perceive it as a film about a woman falling in love with a fish-man, but a good film about a woman falling in love with a fish-man. With del Toro at the helm as director, writer, and producer I had a good feeling it wouldn’t disappoint.
Though partly confirmed by the film’s recent Oscar nomination, I was happy to find through first-hand that for the most part the film lived up to my expectations. While at a skeletal level it tells a rather straightforward story about social outcasts finding companionship with one another in difficult times, as well as lonely beings finding love from unexpected places, it’s the execution of these ideas that the movie does so beautifully. The setting designs are gripping, from the dank and dreary research facility to the aesthetics so reminiscent of the era to the humble yet quaint home of Elisa and the artful curiosities of her neighbor and friend Giles (Richard Jenkins). While not detached from reality, there is a fairy tale-like quality to the visuals, let alone the story. It made it fun for me just to watch the characters moving through this world.
I love Elisa as a character, especially in how Hawkins’s performance and del Toro’s direction give her depth and personality without using spoken dialogue. Through nuanced body language, facial expressions, and other behaviours its often easy to tell what she is feeling or even thinking, most notably in more contextual situations. There are key moments where sign language is used and translated for us when necessary, but this occurred less frequently than I’d expected. I think it was to the film’s benefit that it didn’t lean too heavily on this, but I wouldn’t have minded a little more. Her growing connection to the creature, after she discovers him in the lab and starts a routine of sneaking in time to spend with him, is beautiful to watch unfold as it transitions from sympathy, to companionship, and eventually romantic intimacy.
The effects for the amphibian man (Doug Jones)—or “The Asset”—are simply marvelous. I’m sure some of them are digital to get certain bioluminescent features and eye movement looking more organic, but for the most part it seems to all be practical effects, which looked almost perfectly natural. The design of the character strikes a great balance between an otherworldly creature and something relatable and sapient. He cannot speak, and he has different needs than we do to live, but you can tell there is thought close to humanity behind his eyes and movements, not simply a creature.
The supporting cast was very strong as well. Giles was an endearing, hapless character suffering in a world that will not tolerate his sexuality. I love that despite what discourages him and his own shortcomings in confidence he still tries. Zelda (Octavia Spencer) is Elisa’s co-worker who also serves as her interpreter on the job. While their relationship seemed limited to work for the most part, they clearly care about each other very much, Zelda often serving as a nurturing force and voice of reason for Elisa. Elisa is in turn a great listener for Zelda to vent her frustrations about life. Her condition as a mute seems almost incidental to this, as it’s clear Zelda isn’t just taking advantage of her inability to speak back. She understands Elisa, even without her having to sign, and Elisa seems happy to be an ear for her friend. Lastly we have Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a compassionate scientist of questionable allegiance. I appreciated him as an outside force necessary for Elisa to succeed, as well as the conflicted nature he brought to the story, emphasizing the shades of grey in the world.
Michael Shannon was a great villain as Colonel Richard Strickland, who first apprehended “The Asset” from a river in the Amazon and dragged him all the way to Baltimore for study and exploitation. His nitpicky, overbearing, and cruel nature were flawlessly performed and easy to despise, but there was also a good level of understanding brokered for the audience. While not in any way excusing his behaviour, we do come to understand the reasons why this man is like this, through the pressures of the times and his vocation as well as the attitudes that this era encouraged or enabled. He has the most power of anyone important to the story, yet we do come to see how easily everything he’s worked for can be taken away by those above him and what effect that might have on someone accustomed to the success they’ve worked hard for.
The Shape of Water is a beautiful fable of a film, possibly the best of del Toro’s work that I’ve seen, telling an uplifting and innocent story about love set against the backdrop of troubling times. Some moments that highlighted these troubling aspects were a little more on the nose in context than I think was necessary, but never in a way that diminished the story. The premise may be unusual to some, but I found it thoroughly compelling and I’m thrilled that a film like this is getting as much critical recognition as it is. Perhaps not for the less open-minded audience member, I highly recommend it nonetheless.