Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy-romance film has brought literal meaning to the metaphor: sleeping with the fishes.
Set in Cold-War America, we follow the heroine Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman working as a cleaner for a scientific organisation, who finds herself drawn to an amphibian man-creature (frequent collaborator Doug Jones) trapped and observed under the auspices of the government run by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Elisa relies on the loyalty of her best friends Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and Giles (Richard Jenkins) to assist her in saving the amphibian from violent experimentation and death – a plotline that is making the lawyers of Seaworld go: ‘That sounds familiar.’
While this could easily be classified as a star-crossed lovers film, del Toro is generous in his subplots and characterisations of the side characters. Giles, Elisa’s neighbour, is an older, closeted gay bachelor who is attempting to re-emerge into the world of advertising and struggles with his loneliness. While Zelda, a co-worker of Elisa’s, babbles incessantly about her husband and serves as her friend’s protector. We get the sense that what unites these characters is their shared sense of isolation; Elisa’s inability to speak, Giles’ retrospective grief over his lack of romance and appreciated work, and Zelda’s clear need for somebody to talk to. Del Toro spritzes some eau de Tom Clancy with his double agents and American-Russian tensions, an intriguing creature and enough running water scenes to make the most fastidious of viewers’ bladders lurch uncomfortably. But the notion that the remedy for loneliness is to be understood remains at the forefront of this film and overshadows the more blockbuster-y elements.
It’s fundamentally important to remember that across del Toro’s filmographic universe, the co-existence between humans and creatures is normal which is why Zelda, upon hearing of Elisa’s sexual congress with the amphibian cheekily laughs instead of, say, throwing up. However, this film is a love story, albeit an unconventional one, which doesn’t deliver gratuitous moments of tadpole conceptions but makes it clear that the relationship between Elisa and the amphibian is one of substance. No one swiped right on Tinder (or perhaps Fin-der in this case) at the local aquarium.
Del Toro’s sense of colour is aesthetically soothing submerging us in the turquoises and aquamarines of his water world. And despite being set in Baltimore, there is something almost whimsical and off-kilter about the cityscape that feels very similar to the city of Rapture in the Bioshock games before everything turned horrific.
The performances of this film are phenomenal. Hawkins’ is playing the mute but ironically is anything but silent. Her sign language can be as violent as a face slap, her facial expressions such an open indication of her yearnings, frustration and determination that dialogue isn’t necessary. When we hear from actors that a role they undertook was ‘physically demanding’ we picture gruelling weight lifting regimes, strict diets of water and cayenne pepper, and daily jogging. However, we shouldn’t downplay the physically demanding merits of Hawkins having to control her face and hands to appropriately carry the story and all its emotional intensity. Additional praise should be bestowed on Jenkins’ portrayal of Giles who often provides comic relief and is perhaps a character you root to succeed more than Elisa herself. But every actor is incredible and Doug Jones, having played creatures in previous del Toro projects such as Pan’s Labyrinth and the Hellboy franchise is a comforting, familiar presence like piano ballads in every episode of Grey’s Anatomy.
With thirteen Oscar nominations, The Shape of Water is the approaching tsunami set to sweep all the accolades away from other competitors – although rumour has it that Three Billboards could serve as an effective barrier. But this tense, wondrous film is worth watching and if the end result is you making a bit too much eye contact with your goldish at home, just remember that del Toro won’t judge you.
This review has not been sponsored by PlentyOfFish.com.
Words by Jordon Early.