Film Review: The Shape of Water
Monday 8 January 2018
Peter W Sheehan, Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
THE SHAPE OF WATER. Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Doug Jones, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Nick Searcy. Directed by Guillermo Del Toto. Rated MA 15+. (Strong themes, violence and a sex scene). 123 min.
This American fantasy drama tells the story of a mute cleaning woman who works for a high security, government research laboratory in Baltimore, USA in the Cold War era of the early 60s. While there she forms a relationship with an aquatic creature who has been imprisoned in the lab.
The film was awarded The Golden Lion for best film at the 2017 Venice Film Festival, and has received seven nominations at the 75th. Golden Globe awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay. Guillermo De Toro directed and co-wrote the film.
Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) was rendered mute by an accident she had as a child and is a night janitor at the mysterious Occam Aerospace Research Centre in Baltimore. The Centre receives a new ‘asset’ for analysis - a strange, amphibious, humanoid creature (Dough Jones) that is captured for experimental testing. Elisa spends time with the creature, feeding and sharing music that she plays to him at night. Slowly, they build up an intimate connection with each other that releases Elisa from a lifetime of loneliness and isolation. Elisa wants to help him, and the creature responds to her, communicating to her, as no one else has, that ‘he sees me as I am’.
The creature was discovered by Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) in the rivers of South America, deep in the Amazon. The people there worshipped the creature, but in captivity Strickland treats him cruelly, and electrical prods and chains are used to force the creature to submit. Those in charge are conflicted about what to do with the creature. General Hoyt (Nick Searcy) wants the creature’s body harvested, while others, like Soviet spy, Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) want him kept alive for further study. Desperate to help the creature, Elisa convinces her next door neighbour, Giles (Richard Jenkins), and one of her coworkers at the laboratory, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), to help her save the creature. Together, they find a canal which provides the creature with the water he needs, when the rains begin. Elisa is injured in the battle to recapture the creature, and the creature miraculously cures her, turning the scars on her neck into gills. In so doing, he gives Elisa the means to breathe under water, assuring that they can spend their future lifetime together.
This film illustrates the work of Del Toro at its finest. The artistry of the fantasy that del Toro creates is breathtaking in his imaginative sweep. The direction of the love story between Elisa and the creature is complemented at every point by wonderful cinematography. Primary colours - green, blue and red - flood the screen, signalling both water and violence. Sally Hawkins is superb as the woman who is emotionally liberated by her attachment to the creature. This is a movie that sweeps the viewer along in its imaginative daring. In some ways, the movie reminds one of ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon ‘ (1954), but it is more sophisticated; it has a better story-line and moral overtones; and it is far richer in its fantasy. Nostalgically (using cinematic musical routines with the sights and sounds of people like Betty Gable, and Carmen Miranda), it creatively explores the cinematic past ‘to (help) understand the future’.
The film is a powerful and unique story about love that is discovered by a lonely woman. It is a stirring romantic tale. Hawkins’ acting projects humanity that survives the violence that surrounds the creature. The film is a mix of complex elements, and it is Elisa’s emotional journey that matters most. This is is a film where a lonely woman finds hope and love unexpectedly in a totally unforgiving context that reliably fails to recognise the person she really is. Giles narrates the movie in its finishing line, echoing the words: ‘unable to feel the shape of you, I feel you all around me’ - which poetically expresses the shape of water.
This movie provides a rich and moving imaginative experience in a totally original way. It is compelling, daring, creative, and unsettling.
Peter W Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.