How can I describe The Shape of Water? Perhaps at the core it’s a story about loneliness and finding an emotional harbour. More on that later …
Some critics mention that there is a connecting thread among Guillermo del Toro‘s movies – that he loves his supernatural realm – of monsters and creatures. He also doesn’t shy away from graphic, painful scenes – somehow he always manages to make them integral to the story and not ‘tacked-in’ just for gratification or shock. I have only seen Pan’s Labyrinth, and I can see a connection between the two.
The Shape of Water is about Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) – a cleaner who works in a scientific research plant. A childhood injury left her mute, with visible scars on her neck. She works very closely with Zelda (Octavia Spencer), an African-American woman who can understand Elisa’s sign language and sometimes acts as her interpreter. Elisa lives above a movie theatre – next door to a confirmed bachelor, Giles (Richard Jenkins). Then one day, a Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings an ‘asset’ from a river in South America. The asset is some kind of an amphibian creature that resembles a human. He thinks that the creature has limited intelligence – and his dislike grows much stronger when the creature severs two of his fingers in the lab. Somehow, Elisa manages to communicate with the creature through sign language, and forms a bond. As Colonel Strickland sees little use of the creature being kept alive, he wants to kill and dissect the creature – under the blessing of General Frank Hoyt (Nick Searcy). To further complicate the story, there’s a Russian double agent in the laboratory who is sympathetic towards the creature and decides to help Elisa, when she wants to rescue the creature out of the lab. The story is set to be in the 1950s, with the risk of Russian espionage and the looming space war between the United States and the USSR.
As I mentioned previously, the movie is a story about loneliness and finding that sense of belonging – Elisa finds it in the creature, and Giles yearns for it as well through his paintings, and his attraction for young cafe staff that he likes to visit. I also feel that it’s an artistic criticism against arrogance – that if somebody looks different or does not speak your language, it doesn’t mean that they are less of a human, not as smart, or not worthy to be considered seriously. I get this hint from a scene between Colonel Strickland when he makes a reference that man are created in God’s image, but God probably looks more like him (a white male), compared to Zelda. There are other scenes throughout the movie that serve as reminders – that one should not easily dismiss those who we don’t consider equal.
The movie is beautifully directed with lush, luscious lighting and beautiful music throughout – there’s an old-world feel to it (well, as I mentioned, it’s set in the 50s), especially with a creature that almost looks like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Sally Hawkins is perfect as a loner, introverted Elisa, who is gutsy on the inside and just wants somebody to love. The movie may be ‘a bit different’ for some, but different does not mean that you will not enjoy Guillermo del Toro’s craftsmanship and storytelling.