Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape Of Water uses the unlikely, surreal story of a romance between a mute woman (the excellent, poised Sally Hawkins) and a captive, sentient sea-creature played by del Toro stalwart, Doug Jones, to explore the emotions of loneliness, isolation and discrimination. Bringing a gritty reality to something magical is a del Toro trademark. The fairytale element in this case, feels like an inverted version of the Little Mermaid. Hans Christian Anderson was dark, but del Toro shows us the light in the form (or shape) of water.
Water is constantly present in the movie. The greeny-blue palette of the cinematography mixes with the eclectic musical backing to guide us through the story like little water streams. Alexandre Desplat’s score, wistful chansons d’amour, the great American song book and Carmen Miranda’s Chica, Chica Boom Chic are the water-drops on the roof – that elemental reminder.
Guillermo del Toro draws a lot of his own style, but borrows from the dystopian feel of Terry Gilliam’s 1985 Brazil, reverting from the future to the intolerance of America’s 50’s and 60’s.
Elisa, the female protagonist, (Hawkins) was found as a child by the river – mute. Like Andersen’s mermaid, she looks for love on land, but her disability isolates her from society leaving her with only her own solo bath time routine and her neighbor Giles for comfort. Misery loves company and Giles, played by Richard Jenkins, is also an outcast in that era because of his sexual preference.
She works as a cleaner in a gloomy, paranoid government laboratory with her colleague and friend Zelda, played by Octavia Spencer. A safe pick by del Toro, who faithfully channels characters from previous performances. Also victims of prejudice from this unenlightened time. Elisa meets the amazon amphibian creature held captive for cruel experimentation at her place of work. Connecting on a deeper level over hard boiled eggs and music.
There is a beast in this story, and it’s not the amphibian man that suffers in the same silence as Elisa. Michael Shannon is another safe bet, as he is second to none as the villain with no redeeming qualities. He tortures the amphibian, he bullies his colleagues, he even mistreats his wife and child. That said, I did like his reference to Kellogg’s original purpose for cornflakes as being a cure for masturbation.
The Shape of Water weaves a poignant love story skillfully into the fantastic elements. It’s a fine accomplishment with some great set pieces. My favorite being the Fred and Gingeresque fantasy dance routine. Does Elisa find love, or does the Andersen ending prevail? You’ll have to go and see it to find out.