Director Guillermo del Toro, with The Shape of Water, creates a canvas of human frailties, love, longing, and courage that transcends any quest for love that we’ve ever seen onscreen before. Sure, there have always been variations of the beauty and the beast – including the fairytale itself – most notably the uncountable reboots of King Kong. In the gigantic monster movie, there’s no redemption for the beast. In The Beauty and the Beast, the redemption is the transformation of the beast back to his original, sparkling, handsome self.
But is love truly magical when it creates perfection amidst ugliness? Or does it inspire awe when it buds amidst all the mendacity and pernicious forces, and also manages to find beauty in the way things are, and not in the tadpole-to-prince garden variety? The Shape of Water spins a universe of an adult fairy tale which explores love that is multi-dimensional; it isn’t afraid to throw open the dungeon of desires that lonely people maintain and hide from the world – and which fairy tale that has love as its backbone, doesn’t have a lonely protagonist? And no, it isn’t about how a woman and a semi-amphibian creature have sex. It’s much, much more than that, and beyond that.
With co-writer Vanessa Taylor, director del Toro creates the world of mute Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), who works the night shift at a secret American facility in Baltimore called Occam, during the Cold War in the 60s. No, she isn’t a researcher there, but part of the cleaning team with her colleague and friend Zelda Delilah Fuller (Octavia Spencer). Zelda also helps officials interpret Elisa’s sign language, and is happy to carry on ramblingly entertaining monologues about the state of her marriage with hubby Brewster (Martin Roach.) Elisa’s world has one more person who understands her, and not just her sign language, but also the feeling of helpless loneliness, Giles (Richard Jenkins), who’s struggling to sell his illustrations to the ad company he’d previously worked for – you aren’t given a direct reason why Giles no longer has that job, but you do know, through a beautifully done pie-store scene, that he’s trying to get across his feelings to the Pie Guy (Morgan Kelly).
Right in the opening, you see how Elisa’s life is one unflappable routine, she setting it to an egg-boiling timer down to pleasuring herself in the tub – and then, her staid procedural life is shattered by the arrival of Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) at Occam with his discovery and catch from the jungles of Amazon – a humanoid amphibian (Doug Jones). Egging Strickland to complete his study on the creature is his boss, General Frank Hoyt (Nick Searcy), who also wants to ensure that the Russians don’t get their hands on, or know anything more about this find. There’s also Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) in the facility who needs more time to study the creature, and resists plans to vivisect it.
Amidst this all develops the unlikely, but not surprising, bond between Elisa and the creature, that begins with boiled eggs and swirls into a tale of love that’s passionate, real, and truly magical. Director del Toro creates a world that’s surreal, beautifully lit, and one where the story’s painted, erased, and repainted with water. With cinematographer Dan Laustsen and editor Sidney Wolinsky, the director gently floods your senses with scenes that are so fluid, so stunning, and so perennial even within the movie’s running time of 2 hours, you are transposed to a fairy tale world that’s as relevant to our world as it is to Elisa’s. And not just her’s, but every character in the story, who are caught in their own whirlpool of loneliness and struggles, where the vortex defines who they are, as they spin around its axis with the grace of the director’s soft touch. There’s Giles, whose own life, as he looks at it, is one where he has done nothing but watch it flow by, and now stands in a wistful pool of what-ifs; there’s Strickland who’s as unlikeable as anyone you’d have ever met, who’s racist and sexist, and that pours out when he’s scorning Elisa and Zelda, when he’s harassing the former, or when he’s in bed with his wife Elaine (Lauren Lee Smith.) The scene colors are almost forever a shade of green, as if to convey the oceanic emotional depth that the movie achieves, but the camera, even as it captures all these characters, almost never stops, creating its own laws of fluid mechanics.
Coruscating along with the poetry of the wave and tide of each scene, falling along with the pitter-patter of the rains, taking the shape of every scene as does the water, is composer Alexandre Desplat‘s score. His accordion in the theme music floats, as if undulating in water, buoyed by the lapping of the piano and the flow of the string section; the strings can be ominous when they need to be; or when you see the Occam facility for the first time, the accordion of routine plinks into a mildly paranoid piano tinkle.
The sound recording, mixing, editing, and engineering by Sylvain Arseneault, Alex Bullick, Christian T. Cooke, Glen Gauthier, Paul Gosse, Kevin Howard, Dashen Naidoo, John Soukup, Nathan Robitaill, Tyler Whitham, Brad Zoern, and Michael Baskerville is outstanding – for it is their team’s efforts that give life-like sound to the miscible shape of water; every scene has sound effects that are subtle and real, sometimes the mixing and editing simply stunning – note the scene where Strickland’s having sex with his wife, and that rhythmic pounding sound segues, along with the scene, into the sound of the facility thrumming with machines, both mechanical and insistent, and dominating.
The acting’s first-rate, be it Michael Shannon’s evil-cum-manic bigoted act, Octavia Spencer’s humane and warm touch, her eyes absorbing and radiating all that they see and feel, or Michael Stuhlbarg’s struggle with what he knows and what he wants to know. Then there’s Doug Jones in that amphibian suit, and yet giving it a personality like no other. Thanks to his organic melding with his character and suit, he can make it scared, vulnerable, in love, and finally, toweringly ferocious. And of course, Sally Hawkins, who bares it all for the role, opening her soul and body to a role that’s so mind-bogglingly complex, a lesser act would have made the entire enterprise ludicrous. And you don’t even realize that she never utters a word of dialogue throughout – she’s so damned expressive, so good.
The Shape of Water is a touching tribute to love and those who covet it – love, like water, will find a way for those who don’t resist it. It’s also a tribute to Guillermo del Toro’s love for the movies – Elisa’s decadent home rests above a struggling movie theater, aptly named the Grecian-sounding Orpheum, playing the Biblical The Story of Ruth – and how amidst life’s most beastly situations, the magic at the movies might just sprinkle some beauty on it. And it’s an ode to stumbling onto life’s perfect partner, even as Elisa sign-talks of the creature, “He sees me for who I am and not what I am.” For a mute human being surrounded by the noise of constant imperfections, evils, and disdain, it says so much about the state of our lives that she should find a perfect communicator in a being that can only chitter and growl, and yet both understand each other completely and complete each other. del Torro paints a perfect being, and rightly and unfortunately, it’s not us. And there, somewhere, is a lesson for us – one that humankind will ignore, and let our animal instincts continue to make us the monsters we weren’t supposed to be.
The Shape of Water is rated R (Sexual content, Graphic nudity, violence, and language)
The Shape of Water
Director Guillermo del Toro Running Time 2h 03 min
Writer Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Stars Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg
Genres Adventure, Drama, Fantasy
Watch the trailer of The Shape of Water here: