In his review of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Roger Ebert described it as a fairy tale for adults. Well Roger, the director of fantastical cinematic imagery has given us another one. Compared to Pan’s Labyrinth, this is a simpler and less horrifying tale. The Shape of Water is a delightful love story with a gratifying, requiting end.
The Shape of Water is set during the Cold War, in 1962 U.S., inside a high security, science research centre. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) oversees a new arrival from the Amazon (South America that is), a monstrous beast, and if he cares to really examine the creature with an appreciative eye, a beautiful Amphibian Man (clandestinely played by Doug Jones). Yes, the reverse of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid.
In the research centre is Dr. Holffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who has to tend to his covert mission, it is the Cold War after all, but from a scientific point of view, does have an appreciative eye for the creature.
At the bottom of the rung are the janitorial staff, Elisa and Zelda, and with them the story comes alive. Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer’s duo performance is worth your movie ticket. They are the heart and soul of the story, something which the villain lacks. As a fairy tale, we can identify who that is right away, and the irony of who the monster is quickly becomes apparent.
Elisa is mute, she cannot speak but can hear what you say, so be careful. She knows a language that you’ll need a translator to understand, so be careful about that too. Thanks to Zelda, her official interpreter, she knows what not to translate as Elisa speaks her mind to ruthless Strickland.
Elisa’s neighbour is Giles (Richard Jenkins), an artist who does appreciate the Amphibian Man. He is of immense help to Elisa, a faithful friend to her despite endangering his own life. As a fairy tale, we see the good among the characters in sharp contrast to the villain.
As she cleans the facility, Elisa soon comes to appreciate the Amphibian Man, and the creature soon relates to her as she is, not as a handicapped, low-ranking cleaner. The two forge a bond stronger than any dangerous obstacle. The film moves into the second half as a thriller and leads us to see how love overcomes such obstacles. Love not just between the two obvious characters, but from those built upon friendship and mutual respect. As for the Amphibian Man, he is more powerful than just brute force as the story reaches its climax.
As the Awards Season is well underway, all leading to the finale, the Oscars, we see The Shape of Water gaining tremendous momentum. Among other accolades, it won the AFI Award for Movie of the Year, two Golden Globes: del Toro for Best Director and Alexandre Desplat for Best Original Score, and just received 12 BAFTA nominations. While Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer both get acting noms, they face strong contenders such as Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) and Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird).
The Shape of Water is a simple depiction of human longings and our universal need for connection. It’s a fairy tale love story and not a treatise on controversial subjects for debates. It offers some interesing cinematic visualization, like the beginning scene of Elisa’s apartment under water. The underwater romantic rendition towards the end of the movie, coincidentally, elicits another indelible cinematic moment from my memory, an underwater love scene also involving a woman who cannot speak, a film with which Marlee Matlin won her Best Actress Oscar with her heart-wrenching performance, and that’s Children of a Lesser God (1986).
Surely, water, the shape of it, all enfolding, is the main idea, for that’s what love is like.
~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples