Visionary fantasy auteur Guillermo del Toro presents a genre-bending love story between a mute janitor and a fish-man creature in The Shape of Water. Living in Baltimore during the Cold War, Eliza (Hawkins) is a mute woman working as a cleaner at a secretive government facility. Her best friends include her chatty co-worker and interpreter Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her closeted, middle-aged neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins). One day, Eliza and Zelda witness the arrival of a new “asset” to one of the labs run by Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) and the vicious Strickland (Michael Shannon). Eliza discovers and forms a connection to the aquatic, humanoid creature held captive there and eventually plans to set him free when an order comes through for his vivisection.
A true labour of love, The Shape of Water is eccentric, stylized, and character-driven. Del Toro’s unique visual style, which has explored everything from the Gothic period (Crimson Peak) to techno-monster battles (Pacific Rim), finds new ground in bleak, derelict, 1960s America, casting almost everything in an unsettling yellow-green light. The sickly green gradually shifts to a more calming blue as the theme of water is, of course, strongly present throughout the film, but the paranoia-inflicting colour palette that infects the main laboratory setting is countered by the occasional pops of red colour associated with Eliza, such as her clothing and the old-fashioned, velvet-curtained movie theatre beneath her apartment.
Echoing the quintessentially quirky French indie Amélie, the cast of characters within The Shape of Water’s heightened world are a diverse band of outsiders: a mute yet vivacious protagonist; a dejected, homosexual graphic artist; a disgruntled, talkative black woman; and a mysterious, non-human love interest are all targets of their hate-filled society as symbolized by a psychopathic, militant, white villain. There is fantastic acting all around but Hawkins’ luminous, tender, and wordless presence and Shannon’s intensely creepy, menacing, and unhinged moments are real standouts.
A romantic fairytale and Cold War thriller with a socially critical heart, The Shape of Water is as strange and enchanting as the creature featured within.
Ratings (out of 5):
Overall Average: 4.1