STARRING: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Nick Searcy, David Hewlett, Lauren Lee Smith and Morgan Kelly
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 tells a fable story against the backdrop of Cold War era America. We follow high-security government laboratory cleaner Elisa Esposito, who has lived her life as a mute after being found in a river with wounds on her neck. Lonely and trapped in a life of isolation, her life is changed forever when a secret classified experiment is brought into a laboratory, which she soon learns is a humanoid amphibian.
The Shape of Water is the latest feature from Guillermo del Toro, which takes us to the US during the Cold War era where we follow mute Elisa Esposito, who lives alone in an apartment about a cinema, works as a cleaner at a high-security government laboratory and communicates to those around her through sign language. While she has friends in next door neighbour Giles and fellow co-worker Zelda, Elisa feels lonely and isolated due to her disability. One day in work, her life is changed forever ecret classified experiment is brought into a laboratory, which she soon learns is a humanoid amphibian, forming a bond with the creature as she discovers that it can also communicate through sign language.
Guillermo del Toro is a director whose worked I’ve enjoyed throughout the years, from Blade II, to Pan’s Labyrinth and even Pacific Rim. His attention to detail in creating an atmospheric experience is alluring and The Shape of Water is no different, as the settings feel grounded in a 1960’s setting yet otherworldly with the use of the colour palette, particularly teal (which is even nodded to in a scene involving a car) being the colour of choice in the laboratory space, with great cinematography work by Dan Lausten. The direction is superb as well, particularly in how effortless it seems watching characters walking down tight hallways (there’s one particular sequence of Shannon’s character in the final act that I thought was expertly shot) and the editing from Sidney Wolinsky is excellent. The mood of making the film otherworldly is helped by Alexandre Desplat’s score, enchanting the experience of of making the audience be captured in the fantasy romance of Elisa and the Amphibian Man. As the film excels as a technical marvel, it helps that the performances from the ensemble help elevate the material further. Sally Hawkins has been around in the industry for quite some time and here she is brilliant as Elisa. Her performance in projecting emotion as mute Elisa is superb, particularly in a scene when she tries to make Giles understand why she feels the way she feels for the creature, and arguably if she was nominated any other year she’d easily walk with the Academy Award in the Best Actress category. Richard Jenkins was also great as struggling gay advertising illustrator Giles, as we see him not only trying to maintain a working living, but also crush on the Pie Guy at a diner. It’s his bumbling old fool with a heart performance, particularly in the diner scenes, that are somewhat heartbreaking to watch. Michael Stuhlbarg continues his excellent body of work as scientist Robert Hoffstetler, that secretly is a Soviet spy named Dimitri Mosenkov. Stuhlbarg happened to have the most interesting character arc for me, whilst he’s working to pass along secrets to his Soviet comrades, you can tell that he has an affection from a humanitarian and scientific standpoint for the Amphibian Man and you can feel his conflict when he witnesses it being tortured by Colonel, with the General looking to vivisect it and his handler telling him to kill the creature before the Americans can study it. Octavia Spencer is really good as Elisa’s fellow co-worker and best friend Zelda and Doug Jones is understatedly good with his performance as the Amphibian Man, with the design of the creature very impressive as well.
Whilst I did enjoy the film, the key selling point of the film is the bond that forms and blossoms into a romance between Elisa and the Amphibian Man and to be perfectly honest, I didn’t buy into the fantasy romance. I get that we see how Elisa is alienated from people and almost treated as a second-class citizen due to her disability, especially in the workplace, but we see the bond start between her and the Amphibian, which is then montaged with sharing lunch (particularly Frank Reynolds’ favourite source of food: eggs) and listening to music, then suddenly it’s soulmate season….it felt like a weak foundation setup for me and I just couldn’t get invested in it. We have a few story arcs setup, whilst they help provide great performances, the Robert/Dimitri Soviet spy arc felt shoehorned in. Michael Shannon, while solid, still feels ‘Vintage’ Shannon. His Colonel Richard Strickland has some interesting moments, particularly as he does seem to like the sound of his own voice, he has a creepy vibe thing for silence. There’s one sequence, while really well done, comes towards the final act that will either melt audiences hearts or will have some going ‘this is such Oscar bait shite (actual quote from a friend)’, it can be argued that del Toro is paying too much homage to classic Hollywood. Personally for me, the thing that disappoints me the most, besides not buying into the romance, is that I felt the Amphibian Man was underused. You learn of an interesting backstory of where they captured the creature from and how it was treated, yet I still felt underwhelmed by it all.
Guillermo del Toro’s Shape of Water is beautifully directed, the production design and cinematography make the real world setting look otherworldly and the creature design is terrific. The performances from the ensemble are great, especially Sally Hawkins as mute Elisa and Doug Jones should be given a lot more credit for his performance as the Amphibian Man. It’s just a shame that I couldn’t buy into the romance arc, it just felt weak to me. 7/10