The Shape of Water is an American fantasy romantic drama directed by Guillermo Del Toro and starring Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones. The film is nominated for a whole bunch of Oscars including Best Picture. But can it and should it win?
Elisa Esposito (Hawkins) is a mute cleaning lady at a US Government laboratory at the height of the Cold War. One day, a mysterious tank is brought in, holding an amphibian man (Jones), to be experimented upon.
Elisa and the amphibian man form a bond as he doesn’t judge her on her inability to speak and treats her as a person and she shows him kindness, while the scientists and government men torture him and treat him like a wild animal.
Elisa enlists the help of her two only friends; Giles (Richard Jenkins), a struggling gay artist and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), her African-American colleague and sign language interpreter, to rescue the creature. However, Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon), who is in charge of the facility and the creature, pursues them ruthlessly.
Review (without spoilers)
Del Toro winds suspense, profundity and humour into his own striking style and crafts a world both beautiful and ugly simultaneously.
Each of the characters are flawed in their own way and therefore human, relatable and compelling. Elisa is a morally good character, but her sometimes ill-conceived actions get her and her friends into trouble. On the other end of the spectrum, Strickland is a cynical bully, but has a drive to succeed and do his work well that one can relate to.
The cinematography is utterly stunning and Dan Laustsen has done a miraculous job capturing Del Toro’s gothic-fantasy elements, but combining it with a period-appropriate Golden Age of Hollywood style.
There are some criticisms that I have of the film, however, mainly focused around the pacing and delivery of the story, which I’ll go into greater detail about in the spoiler section of this review.
The film centers around relationships and finding common ground and has a lot to say about today’s standards, despite being set in the 60s. Giles isn’t overtly shunned for his sexuality, but nonetheless is treated tactlessly by most people. Elisa is seen by many as a weak woman, but their underestimation of her causes her to show great courage.
The Shape of Water already has the air of a classic film that can also gently persuade its audience to consider its themes in great detail, despite some pacing issues. 8/10
Review (with spoilers)
My main problem with the film, is sadly the handling of its premise – the relationship. It’s great to see a film that shows love and friendship truly transcending boundaries, but I wish it had focused more on building up the romance between Elisa and the amphibian man.
The film starts out quite slowly, with Elisa gradually building a bond with him, but suddenly picks up as she has to rescue him. Then it slows back down and we get a montage of them having sex in her bath. Then, suddenly, they need to take off again. Then, of course, at the end he saves her life and it turns out that they can now be together for the rest of their lives.
It would also have been nice to see a bit more development for some of the supporting cast. Zelda is a great character, but compared to most of the cast, she feels a little one-dimensional, and doesn’t really seem to exist other than to help, or worry about, Elisa.
Michael Stuhlbarg plays an undercover Soviet spy, working in the laboratory, who defies both his American employers and his Soviet handlers to assist Elisa in rescuing the creature. The film isn’t about Cold War politics, it just uses it as a backdrop, but to refer to it and not develop it further seems a little wasteful. The only emotion we see from him is being distraught at both sides’ decision to kill the creature. You’d think he would be scared to some degree.
The one thing that leaves a bad taste in my mouth, though, is how the main relationship suddenly becomes romantic. In older sci-fi, one of the more insidious tropes is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl; a love-interest of the male hero who has the body of a full grown woman, but no understanding of the complexities of human relationships.
In the Shape of Water, we have the reverse. It’s not nearly as rapey as most MPDG roles, but I didn’t find myself all too comfortable with the idea of a knowledgeable human woman getting into the bath naked with the creature and teaching him about sexual nature. Sure, the film implies that he has a deeper level of intelligence and understanding than most people see him as having, but it still falls into the same trope. She is the first human he’s met to treat him romantically.
Now, for the story to work, the amphibian man, sort of needs to be inexperienced in human nature, but had more time been spent developing the relationship of the two main characters, it would have felt natural when they did begin to have a sexual relationship. As it is, I can’t in good conscience say that it’s a particularly healthy message.
Should it win Best Picture?
There are certainly worse films that have won Best Picture in years past. If it does win, it would be a good sign for fantasy and sci-fi films as well as an endorsement of more original filmmaking – centering a plot around two characters who can’t talk, only one of whom is human.
It’s the hot favourite to win at the moment, and might benefit from preferential voting. Most people to have seen The Shape of Water will like it enough to rank it highly, even if they don’t put it first, whereas the main contender, Three Billboards, will probably gain a lot of first choices, but probably not many seconds or thirds.
I couldn’t make a through judgement right now as I’ve not seen all of the nominees. However, the pacing of Three Billboards made it a more compelling film and the themes of loss and empowerment were just as strong as they are in this film.
From what I’ve seen, I’d say Get Out is the best film in the running. Its pacing is electric, the acting is great, the tension is interspersed with moments of humour and the film’s message is damningly profound in talking about today’s issues with racism.
Due to its subject matter and horror genre, though, it’s unlikely to find favour with enough of the Academy to sweep the top prize.
Overall, I’d be happy for the Shape of Water to win Best Picture; just not over the moon.