Director: Guillermo del Toro
Runtime: 123 minutes
I bid farewell to 2017 in the only way I felt appropriate: sipping white wine while watching the newest release from one of the foremost filmmakers of our generation.
I must admit, my anticipation was briefly disturbed when I arrived at the cinema; the only available seats were directly beneath the screen, and the two women next to me had obviously begun their white wine much earlier in the day.
However, Guillermo del Toro’s newest fantasy-drama, The Shape of Water, quickly transported me to a fanciful world celebrating love in all its extraordinary manifestations.
Co-written by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, The Shape of Water is set in 1960s Baltimore at the height of the Cold War between Russia and America. At the centre of the narrative is Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute custodian working at a high-security government laboratory. While cleaning with her close friend and co-worker, Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer), Elisa stumbles upon the facility’s newest and most worthwhile asset: an amphibian humanoid (Doug Jones) found off the coast of South America by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon).
Elisa is quickly enamoured by the Amphibian Man’s curious nature, and by his implicit acceptance of her perceived shortcomings. Strickland plans to dissect the Amphibian Man, as he believes ‘it’ is not made ‘in the image of God’. Subsequently, Elisa calls upon the assistance of her closeted gay neighbour, Giles (Richard Jenkins), and Dr Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), an undercover Soviet scientist working at the laboratory, to release the Amphibian Man into her care.
The rest of the film chronicles the budding romance between Elisa and the Amphibian Man, though their happiness is threatened by Strickland’s menacing obsession to find the creature and kill it.
The Shape of Water principally deals with the nature of love and acceptance. Quoting scripture to justify his cruel treatment of the Amphibian Man, Strickland embodies narcissism and white privilege. The suffering he causes, and his deeply unfulfilled personal life, testifies to the folly of societal repression.
Meanwhile, Elisa and her team of companions, despite having ‘undesirable’ traits, find contentment in their celebration of one another’s differences.
Sally Hawkins’ performance is very much deserving of her Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations. She engages her entire physicality in each hand gesture and facial expression to convey Elisa’s resilience.
Richard Jenkins’ portrayal is timely and heartfelt. In light of the loneliness imposed by his sexuality, you wouldn’t blame Giles for harbouring resentment towards the world. However, he reciprocates Elisa’s friendship using wry humour and sympathetic wisdom.
Likewise, Alexandre Desplat’s original score instils the film with del Toro’s trademark affinity for the fantastic. French ballads and musicals from the Golden Age heighten the romance between Elisa and the Amphibian Man, while also demonstrating their desire to learn and experience more.
And del Toro’s whimsical set designs are injected with the supernatural by cinematography Dan Lausten’s dark lighting. We are in 1960s Baltimore, and yet Elisa’s apartment, with its vintage wallpaper, leaky roof, and shadowy corners, feels like another realm where anything is possible.
It is safe to say that I welcomed in 2018 with a smile on my face. The Shape of Water was intoxicating, drawing me into the waves of happiness to be found in our acceptance of one another.