The Shape of Water Film Review
Embracing the Other
Despite his subject matter, Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water’s director, has never really been a filmmaker who alienates his audiences. Underneath all the psychopathic dictators (Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006), ghostly orphans (The Devil’s Backbone, 2001) and incestuous killers (Crimson Peak, 2015) are stories as familiar as a Steven Spielberg epic or as comforting as a childhood fairy tale. His latest, which features a mute janitor’s erotic affair with a fish man held captive by the US government, stops being weird once you’ve finish summarising it for your friends. The movie is a love story, a fish out of water story (sorry), a good old fashioned caper and a fairy tale: it’s ET: The Extra Terrestrial (1981) sporting fish scales—a harmless sheep in wolf’s clothing. In a lot of ways, it’s nothing you haven’t seen before, but that hardly matters.
Sally Hawkins, who was captivating as the relentlessly chipper Poppy in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), a role that should’ve been grating, manages some rare feat of genius in playing Elisa Esposito. She’s given all the ingredients for an impressive performance: physical disability (muteness), a yearning for love and the skill of signing, something that seems magical to someone like me who knows only the most perfunctory of signs. What’s so miraculous about her performance is that she doesn’t just turn in an admirable performance that juggles a few quirks. It feels entirely idiosyncratic, as if only she could’ve played this character that a thousand actors would give anything to have a go at.
Elisa lives by herself in a dingy apartment across the hall from illustrator Giles (Richard Jenkins), with whom she watches old movies. Neither of them are wealthy and the building they live in isn’t lavish, but it’s a forgivable sin of Del Toro’s and his production designer Paul D. Asterberry’s that they’re too in love with the film’s décor to make it look convincingly impoverished. Befitting the clockwork structure of Elisa’s day, everything in this world is neat, perfectly placed and attractively kitsch, as if it takes place in a meticulously arranged antique store. Elisa’s heels, Giles’ easel, the diner downstairs—it’s all a little too much like a movie set, but it’s such a dreamy, wonderfully arranged one, shot with a surreal, dank hue by Dan Lausten, it only sinks you further into its submersive world.
Where Elisa works, the men are scientists in lab coats and the women are maids in dresses. Big, steel doors like bank vaults restrict access to the most important rooms, in one of which is housed a very mysterious creature that Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) dragged back from South America so he could lock it up and poke it with his menacing electrical prod. Shannon has made a name for himself playing villains. There was his paper-thin Zod in Snyder’s Man of Steel movies and his unhinged Nelson Van Alden in Boardwalk Empire, but he excels when he plays a mix of good and bad, a kind of corrupted character who tries to do good in a pretty bad way, like his Sherrif Bobby Andes in Nocturnal Animals. Here, though, he’s a cartoon villain. He thinks lowly of women, abuses the gentle fish man, and doesn’t even wash his hands after he takes a piss. It’s such a silly villain, really, you shouldn’t accept it, but Shannon just does such a damn good job. A scene in which he’s jackhammering and suffocating his prim and proper wife (Lauren Lee Smith) in their playschoolishly multi-coloured bedroom brings this cartoonish villainy to a hysterical tipping point, like some momentary lapse in your concentration rather than an actual scene in a film you just witnessed.
The fish man is played with imposing physicality by Doug Jones. He has a strong, lean, swimmer’s body, but he’s amphibian enough to be emphasise Otherness, making the screenwriting challenge of his believable love story with Elisa all the more impressive. Piecing this whacky, wonderful world together is a soundtrack that beats Baby Driver (2017) for its tonal consistency, using irresistible numbers like Carmen Miranda’s ‘Chica Chica Boom Chic’ in a way that slips free of cliché and brings home the authenticity.
The risks del Toro and co. take with The Shape of Water don’t feel risky because they’re handled so well, and the familiar beats of the plot aren’t dull because they take place in such a weird and wonderful world. It’s a safe trek through a scary place, probably the only film you could take the whole family to that happens to include an erotic interspecies love story.