Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Premise: Set in the 1960s, the night custodian (Sally Hawkins) at a government research facility discovers a fish-man being held captive. She falls in love with the creature and hatches an escape plan before the facility staff vivisects him.
What Works: Guillermo del Toro specializes in making fantasy films and many of his projects are ambitious in the way that they break out of the trappings of Hollywood formulas. The Shape of Water showcases many of del Toro’s best qualities as a filmmaker. The movie exists somewhere between reality and fantasy; some sequences are grounded in recognizable physical dimensions while others become dreamlike and surreal. The Shape of Water effortlessly transitions between these styles while remaining aesthetically and narratively coherent. This is a beautifully made film. The fish-man, who owes a lot to Creature from the Black Lagoon, is presented in a way that is credible. But the whole production design of The Shape of Water is impressive. The research facility has an industrial and institutional style that recalls sci-fi drive-in features while the rest of the movie has a rich and colorful early 1960s style. Del Toro also has an appreciation for mature fantasy. This love story between a woman and a fish-man could be very silly but it’s not because the picture is grounded in a yearning for love and connection. Elisa, played by Sally Hawkins, is a mute woman who is isolated from the world because of her disability. She finds a commonality with this amphibian creature and Hawkins makes the interspecies romance credible. The film also includes a subplot with Elisa’s neighbor, a gay man played by Richard Jenkins. He is a homosexual at a time when that is not socially acceptable and there is clearly a parallel between Elisa and her neighbor and their mutual search for love and connection. This is a very sexual movie and the filmmakers embrace the carnality of their characters but in a way that doesn’t feel exploitative. Rather, The Shape of Water is about the relationship between physical and emotional gratification and it then connects those ideas to empathy. The result is a work that’s fanciful but also very humane.
What Doesn’t: The Shape of Water comes up short as a love story in its lack of passion between Elisa and the amphibious creature. The fish-man remains an alien being. He engages in basic communication with her but there is little indication that he is more than an animalistic being. The fish-man possesses no personality nor does he make any gestures of emotion. Compare the lack of characterization of the amphibian in The Shape of Water with the nuanced portrayal of the alien in E.T. the Extra Terrestrial or the Na’vi people of Avatar and the shortcoming becomes clear. As a result, the love story is handicapped. Love stories depend upon creating a desire in the audience to see these people get together and live happily ever after. The Shape of Water never really accomplishes that.
Bottom Line: The Shape of Water may not quite deliver as a love story but this is a terrific fairytale from Guillermo del Toro. It’s beautifully made and has terrific performances by Sally Hawkins and Richard Jenkins.
Episode: #681 (January 14, 2018)