Fluid Brilliance Is Real in The Shape of Water
Writer/director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) has a very specific style. He luxuriates in gorgeous set design and floods the screen with particular emotions. The Shape of Water may not only be one of the best films to come out in 2017, but it may be del Toro’s best. In many ways, The Shape of Water soars (or swims) into beautifully unique territory.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!
Characters & Performances
The film stars the extremely talented actress Sally Hawkins. In this role, she barely utters a word. Her character, Eliza, is mute and relies on sign language, body language, and facial expressions to convey her thoughts. She does so beautifully. Hawkins is truly a princess in this stylized post-war fairy tale. She’s cute, she’s funny, and she’s a very honest character. Sally Hawkins received a nomination for a Golden Globe for her performance in this film.
Alongside Eliza, we have her neighbor, Giles, played by Richard Jenkins, who is a struggling older artist. Giles was very likable and very funny. He grounded the film a lot and spoke to the minds of the audience through certain scenarios. Jenkins provides a lot of comic relief as well. And his relationship to Eliza resembles a lovely/sweet middle-ground between father/daughter and best friends. Richard Jenkins received a nomination for a Golden Globe in his role.
Michael Shannon takes the “antagonist” role in this film, portraying Richard Strickland. Strickland is an obtuse character, specifically meant to evoke the regressive mores of the ’50s/’60s. His attitudes towards race, religion, and life are all transparent, and eventually come full circle against him. Shannon commands the screen while he’s on. He doesn’t shy away from his character’s grotesque personality. And while I hated the character, Shannon definitely gets props for making me hate him so much.
In a supporting role, Octavia Spencer plays Eliza’s close work friend. Spencer supplies much of the comic relief but also plays a stern, strong woman of color. She often faces micro-aggressions, namely through Strickland’s racist, back-handed comments, but Spencer handles each scene wonderfully. She has a knack for easing tension in films without breaking it. Octavia Spencer received a nomination for a Golden Globe in her role as a supporting actress.
Doug Jones, who plays our monster or “Amphibian Man” (as credited), deserves commendation. He often plays CGI/bodysuit characters (Abe Sapien in Hellboy, Fauno in Pan’s Labyrinth), much like Andy Serkis, but we can’t overlook his talent, especially here. He puts on a wonderful performance in the film’s other non-speaking role.
Writing & Direction
Guillermo del Toro blends several genres in The Shape of Water. The horror, suspense/thriller, fairy tale, noir, and sci-fi competently craft a romance filled with a ton of heart and genuineness. This may be del Toro’s best film simply due to the immaculate set production (very reminiscent of the BioShock universe) and cinematography. However, the well-written characters and wonderfully-paced film earn your engagement. The film moves very fluidly from moment to moment, scene to scene, effortlessly. The viewer can believably take some things for granted and become completely immersed in others.
The only piece of the film that I take an issue with is the subplot of Giles trying to land a job (or get one back?). It just didn’t fit quite into our focus and felt weak compared to much of the film. The film, as wonderfully-paced and well-written as it is, does take more of a typical turn in terms of story development. It all felt engaging, but the race to escape the “bad guy” felt a little cheesed. Of course, that is an integral part of noir films of old, and The Shape of Water makes a lot of old-school callbacks to classic films. I understand the choice, but the film had plenty of potential for a more unique way of finally tying up threads in the story.
The Shape of Water should have a very promising awards season, as well. As I stated before, Sally Hawkins was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress, Octavia Spencer for Best Supporting Actress, and Richard Jenkins was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. However, the film did win two of its Golden Globe nominations: Guillermo del Toro for Best Director and Alexandre Desplat for Best Original Score. Other nominations included Best Motion Picture – Drama and Best Screenplay. The Shape of Water should perform very well at this year’s 90th Oscars; nominations will be announced on January 23rd.
Overall, The Shape of Water takes its odd circumstances, and some outlandish happenings, all in stride. Its romantic and sexual themes never felt trivial or condescending. The film also flourished LGBT+ and racial commentary that still resonates strongly throughout today’s world. The film is wonderfully set, acted, and written. The Shape of Water might not be for everyone, however. It can feel a tad slow or tediously tension-filled. But there’s something very beautiful and genuine at the film’s heart. The soundtrack alone evokes an infectious romantic tone. The Shape of Water is incredibly well-rounded and can please audiences who favor many different genres.