Film Review: “The Shape of Water”

Story by Alexis Gomes, Staff Writer

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The Shape of Water, directed by Guillermo del Toro, fuses romance, science fiction, and mystery into a mystical and compelling fairytale with a unique look at humanity.

The film, set in the 1950s, follows Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute janitor at a top-secret government facility working to develop equipment for the Cold War. She lives a quiet, isolated life, with her only two friends being her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins) and coworker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). When she comes in contact with a fish-like creature being held at the facility, she begins to sympathize and bond with him. After routinely visiting his tank to feed him hard-boiled eggs, she ends up falling in love with the creature. The facility plans on using the creature to their advantage and then killing him, which troubles Elisa, so she creates a plan to free him into the ocean. Conflict then arises as the facility must recover the creature as a demand from their Soviet partners, causing them to go after Elisa and her friends.

 

The premise of the film sounds odd — how could a romance between a woman and a mythical fish creature be interesting, let alone well done? It comes off as a more mature Beauty and the Beast. To pull off a plot like this without slipping into dangerous territory is something only few could do, del Toro being one. He is no stranger to creating bizarre films; his 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth drew critical acclaim for its’ portrayal of a brutal fantasy universe.

 

Like any well-done film, there is more than surface-level value to The Shape of Water; it incorporates themes of humanity, compassion and the fight against injustice. Many have compared the experience of the creature to the experience of minorities in America, in how he was exploited, yet looked down upon. Three of the film’s main characters are minorities, as well: Elisa, who is disabled; Giles, who is gay; and Zelda, who is African-American. Microaggressions are prevalent as well; in one scene, Giles is told to leave a diner as it is a “family restaurant” and he is gay. In the same scene, a black family is told to leave the diner counter, even though it is empty. The characters are constantly fighting against the system that benefits the privileged, notably Elisa as she cares for the creature. In a particularly moving scene, Elisa signs to Giles that “when he [the creature] looks at me, the way he looks at me… he does not know, what I lack, or – how – I am incomplete. He sees me, for what I – am, as I am.” Elisa’s disability allows her to empathize with the creature, as she draws similarities between them. This connection she feels with him allows her to feel whole, complete, the human she always strived to become.

Earning nominations in 13 categories, including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Cinematography, The Shape of Water is up for the most Academy Awards this year. It already won two Golden Globes, for Best Director and Best Score, and was up for five others. While del Toro — and the world he created — is incredible, it is Hawkins’ performance that drives the film. As Elisa is mute, she does not utter a single word throughout the entire runtime, yet she captivates the screen with a raw, emotional performance worthy of Oscar recognition. She masterfully communicates Elisa’s conflicts, strengths and inner turmoil.

The Shape of Water is almost indescribable, but this film is not for everyone. Much like its’ characters, it is not perfect; it is dark, complicated, beautiful and outstandingly human. When making the film, del Toro said he “wanted to make a completely honest, heart-on-sleeve, non-ironic melodrama.” It is easy to say that his efforts succeeded.

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Film Review: “The Shape of Water”