Guillermo del Toro’s name has become synonymous in the cinema world with chilling horror that plays with our expectations and alters the audience’s perceptions. His latest film is a slight variation. The Shape of Water was a critical success, winning four Academy Awards this year including Best Picture and Best Director. Amongst the darker elements is a gorgeously told love story that reaffirms that the outcasts in society are more than they think themselves to be.
The film tells the story of Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute janitor who works at a secret US military laboratory during the Cold War, where they are performing experiments on the mysterious Asset (Doug Jones) – a creature that looks like a humanoid fish-man. Over the course of the movie, Elisa and the Asset fall in love, and she enlists the help of her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) to free the Asset and return him to his natural environment. However, as with all of del Toros’s other films, it becomes a lot more than that.
The characters are the core of this film. Elisa, the movie’s heroine, grows so much throughout the movie and gains a new-found confidence and self-assuredness that is wonderfully uplifting to watch. She is portrayed by the fantastic Sally Hawkins, who embraces acting through sign-language so much that one would be forgiven for thinking that that was her usual method of communication. She pours copious amounts of rich emotion into the character and her commitment is translated beautifully on-screen. The other characters also shine in their own way: the friendship between Elisa and Giles, for example, is wholesome and their love for each other is palpable. The audience is given the impression that the two have known each other for a long time as they have inside jokes and can read each other incredibly well. Moreover, Elisa’s relationship with Zelda, which at first seemed a little domineering, is shown to be just as full of care and support.
Throughout the film, the cinematography is a pleasure to watch. The underwater scenes are combined with an award-winning score by Alexandre Desplat to transport the viewer into the Asset’s submarine world. The different forms water takes in the film and it’s growing presence on-screen is a central aspect of the film’s visual landscape. At the beginning water is seen is confined spaces – bathtubs, containers, drinking glasses – clearly establishing power structures and showing who is in control. In contrast, the climax of the movie occurs during a storm in the pouring rain, and the abundance of water can be seen as the Asset finally claiming victory over those who constantly try to confine him and the water. By the end of the movie, water is everywhere and cannot be contained.
Central to the film is the Asset himself. Not only is he one of the main characters, but he is also a mirror for other characters to see themselves in. He is symbolic of the outcasts in society, prodded at and confined because they do not conform. His journey to freedom is representative of the changing role of so-called outcasts in society, who are slowly gaining their autonomy and independence formally kept from them. More than that, his freedom shows the other characters what their lives could be like. The film is set in 1962 Baltimore where being a woman, disabled, black, or gay meant day-to-day struggles. Setting the film at this time allows del Toro to include not only the paranoia and fear of the Cold War, but also the upcoming sense of revolution and resistance. The Asset shows the other characters and the audience that being different has a strength of its own.
The Shape of Water is a cinematic feast that pulls on the heartstrings. More than a simple ‘Beauty and the Beast’ tale, it demonstrates that even in a cruel world that casts people out based on their flaws, you can make your own place within it where you can thrive. It showcases phenomenal acting as so much is conveyed with no dialogue at all, and masterfully combines many elements of the language of film to ensure that everything del Toro wanted to convey was done so. Part suspenseful spy-thriller, part enchanting romance, this film is a must-see.
The Shape of Water is available to pre-order on DVD and Blu-Ray now.