Review: The Shape of Water (2017)

The Shape of Water

Rating

Director

Guillermo del Toro

Screenplay

Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor

Length

2h 3m

Starring

Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones, David Hewlett, Nick Searcy, Stewart Arnott, Nigel Bennett

MPAA Rating

R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language

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Review

Allegorically, science fiction and fantasy have often explored the relationship between others, the misfits of society, and those who would deem themselves normal or otherwise unimpeachable. The Shape of Water takes the creature feature of old and does its best to craft a romantic drama that celebrates diversity in tangible and intangible ways.

Guillermo del Toro is a master of the science fiction and fantasy genres. His films often look at strange creatures and monsters who are more genuine and real than the human monsters who chase them. With The Shape of Water, del Toro makes a natural progression from his creature features of the recent past to one that centers around an unlikely romance between a mute woman and a creature from the South American rain forest.

Sally Hawkins stars as Elisa Esposito, a cleaning woman at a secret government facility. Along with her friend and translator Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer), she leads a rather simple life, waking each morning to make hard-boiled eggs, take a pleasurable bath, and spend time with her artist neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins). After a regimented ex-military officer (Michael Shannon) arrives at the facility with a strange creature (Doug Jones) in tow, her curiosity leads her to the creature’s tank where she forms a fast friendship with him, bringing him eggs and introducing him to music, one of Elisa’s few sources of genuine pleasure.

Del Toro has always been a fascinating filmmaker. His vast imagination helps accentuate and embellish reality in such a grandiose way that its fantastical elements feel either at home or perhaps more realistic as a result. A franchise pie shop has a dark, almost sinister feel; the old movie theater, above which Elisa and Giles live, is a mammoth space of once-opulent grandness; a simple military facility is transformed into a fantastical science lab. Production design and costume design become characters of their own in his myriad visions with The Shape of Water feeling the most down-to-earth of his entire oeuvre.

If there is a flaw in the film it’s that the story moves too quickly, almost inorganically. The plot moves speedily even while taking its time. Natural evolution of character is rushed in an effort to get this fantastical story to its pre-ordained conclusion. You almost know precisely where each plot twist will turn, yet clues that seem obvious at first, are dropped unceremoniously, leading to the perception that a two-and-a-half-hour movie was compressed to two hours in a vain effort to appeal to antsy audiences.

Hawkins is luminscent as the Elisa, filling her life and the lives of those around her with positive energy, a ray of light in a world where Communism, racism, homophobia, and myriad other ills have seeped into the American landscape. Even the sinister Russian spy syndicate is given a humanistic guise in the form of a compassionate doctor (Michael Stuhlbarg). Each performance is meticulously enlivened.

In these elements, Del Toro and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor explore the challenge “others” have of finding happiness or safety. Each is struggling against an oppressive society: the mute, the black woman, the homosexual, the Communist scientist and spy, and the amphibious jungle god. They are deemed by Shannon’s hyper-patriotic Richard Strickland as being less than he, a red-blooded American man who screws his wife, a woman who could even be considered an “other” in his mind, and honors country and duty above compassion and humanity.

In these relationships and their collective unification to protect someone whose safety is most literally in jeopardy, we witness a repressed society wherein the oppressed standing together as one, hoping for change, but, in the setting in which the film is placed, finding failure and heartache. The Shape of Water excels most in its fashioning of a cohesive fraternity of silenced voices yearing to speak up and speak out, but fearing to do so.

It’s a fascinating distillation of the present civil rights movements where those who’ve spent decades oppressed can unify together to bring about change in a modern society that is still so repressed that any attempt to push against it emboldens a vocal minority who drown out more reasonable voices. However, like the end of the film, there is still hope that failure is not the final answer and, if all hope shines through, a new life and a new society can subsequently be born.

Oscar Prospects

Guarantees: Production Design, Costume Design
Probables: Picture, Actress (Sally Hawkins), Original Screenplay, Original Score, Cinematography, Visual Effects
Potentials: Director, Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer), Supporting Actor (Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg), Film Editing, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing

Review Written

February 13, 2018

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