Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” is leading the pack when it comes to the number of Oscar nominations this year. We went to see it just ahead of next month’s ceremony, and here are our thoughts on the film.
The approach that Del Toro chooses for this film (he writes and directs) quite quickly evokes memories of his 2006 classic Pan’s Labyrinth – using strong elements of fantasy to portray real life events. The Shape of Water is more grounded in reality than Pan’s Labyrinth was in terms of how things are visualized, but the theme is unmistakably there in both productions.
In The Shape of Water, we are taken to a version of Baltimore in the early sixties, in a story that centers around the relationship that a mute cleaning lady (Sally Hawkins) develops with an amphibian creature with distinct human traits. He’s able to communicate and feel anger and fear – the latter two mostly because of the fact that he’s being held captive at a government facility after being captured in his native habitat in the Amazon.
For a story where one of the protagonists resembles both the Creature from the Black Lagoon and Swamp Thing, The Shape of Water weaves a very human and personal tale. Although the shock value of the ‘amphibian man’ is played up in one of the early scenes (one of his hands dramatically slamming against the inside of his glass cage), most of the story revolves around interpersonal relationships as well as social themes that include sexuality, racism and xenophobia.
The darker side of the story is personified by Michael Shannon’s character Strickland, head of security at the secret government facility. Shannon plays a great bad guy, as we previously saw in Dawn of Justice, and the Shape of Water is no different. His inappropriate sexual advances towards Sally Hawkins’ Elisa, his racial comments towards Octavia Spencer’s Zelda (“you people”) – Strickland’s a character impossible to like yet fascinating to watch. He also embodies many present day themes, as racism and the #metoo movements are constantly on the forefront of the news.
More central to the story is Elisa’s friendship with her gay neighbor and her quickly developing relationship with the amphibian man. Unable to communicate verbally herself, she quickly turns to universal methods of communicating by offering the creature food (in the shape of eggs) and playing music for him, all the while teaching him to speak using sign language. When the decision is made to dissect and study the creature, her relationship pushes her towards a plan to break him out of the facility.
The story then quickly develops towards a fantastical finale, where all of the major players in the film – including the Soviet spy posing as the creature’s doctor – risk everything. We see why the creature should not have been killed, we see what drives Strickland, we see the value of friendship and we see the overpowering essence of love. It may be a little too over the top at times, but it works.
Del Toro doesn’t shy away from graphic depictions in this film, as he shows Elisa’s sexual desires through her daily morning routine of masturbation inside her bathtub. He also makes effective use of color, black and white, silence and sounds – to the effect of conjuring up dream-like images within the fairy-tale he is telling.
So do we think The Shape of Water is going to walk away with a truckload of Oscars next month? My guess is no, since the academy traditionally doesn’t gravitate towards fantasy. Del Toro might pick up one for his director duties though, and the film stands a good chance for production design and cinematography as well. As far as the acting goes I’d love to see Richard Jenkins walk away with it, but he’s been passed over during recent ceremonies.
But even if The Shape of Water only wins less than a handful of Oscars after its 13 nominations, it’s still a film well worth seeing. It’s a signature Del Toro project, so if you enjoyed Pan’s Labyrinth you’ll certainly enjoy this as well.