The Shape of Water (2017)

  • Time: 120 min
  • Genre: Adventure | Drama | Fantasy
  • Director: Guillermo del Toro
  • Cast: Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer


From master story teller, Guillermo del Toro, comes The Shape of Water – an other-worldly fable, set against the backdrop of Cold War era America circa 1962. In the hidden high-security government laboratory where she works, lonely Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is trapped in a life of isolation. Elisa’s life is changed forever when she and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) discover a secret classified experiment. Rounding out the cast are Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg and Doug Jones.


  • (RATING: ☆☆☆☆☆ out of 5 stars)  
    GRADE: A-    


    IN BRIEF:  A lyrical re-telling of an age-old love story that is hauntingly beautiful.

    SYNOPSIS: A mute falls in love with her outer beast.

    RUNNING TIME: 2 hrs.

    JIM’S REVIEW: We all know of Beauty and the Beast, a tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme, etc. Mismatched souls who fight adversity and become one. The famed director, Guillermo Del Toro’s, takes that most cliche of notions and creates a tender love story about a plain-looking mute servant who falls for a big scaly Creature from the Black Lagoon type. Not the most typical movie fare, granted, but doomed lovers nevertheless. Such is The Shape of Water, a swoon-worthy romantic story that is glorious filmmaking.

    Pure poetry in fact.

    It is 1963 during the Cold War. In a hidden laboratory, the government has a top secret experiment in the form of a captive beast. Chained and tortured, this creature searches for the tiniest bit of compassion and finally finds it in a lowly worker named Elisa, a lonely mute waif who also yearns for that human touch…or the next best thing.

    The director carefully sidesteps the sexuality and walks that fine line masterfully, avoiding any unintentional uneasiness with its sensitive subject matter. He fabricates a totally believable world of romance and longing. Adding to the overall romanticism is an insightful and poignant screenplay by Mr. del Toro and Vanessa Taylor that takes its rather rudimental storylines of espionage and governmental conspiracies and wisely pushes those plot devices aside to concentrate on the relationship of two misfits who happen to fall in love. The dialog and voiceover narration is quite beautiful and touching. Also noticeable is the subtleties of racial tension and homophobia in the plot. Yes, there is much at play in this film.

    The Shape of Water works its magic with its strong visual images, lensed by Dan Lausten, and a lush romantic score by Alexandre Desplat. The production design by Paul D. Austerberry is exquisite. The muted colors, all teals and rustics, cast a melancholy aura to the story which most effectively transports the moviegoer into a otherworldly universe. “The world is a lonely place ” it seems to say, and its characters reinforce that sense of desperation and sadness.

    The entire ensemble is splendid. Sally Hawkins is an appealing presence as Elisa. The actress relies on her facial expressions and graceful movement to convey the character’s isolation and angst. She glows with a radiance that embellishes Elisa’s pain. Doug Jones is her love interest and he literally provides such fluid movement and elegance to the role. (Kudos to the creature design, an elongated mass of aqua scales and gills forming rippling musculature that enhances the attraction factor. Let’s face reality, the surreal story is far-fetched and if the beast were a gelatin mass of ooze or a furry fanged monster, the love story could have been a tad unpleasant and possibly intolerable.) Yet, we too fall under the filmmaker’s charming spell.

    Michael Shannon plays the real monster in the film, a villain with no redeeming traits. He provides the necessary hostilities and is a compelling force that advances the narrative, although one wishes the character was written in less black and white terms. Michael Stuhlbarg is Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, an impassioned scientist who sees positive communication with this alien as a breakthrough for mankind and shows the many sides of a conflicted man wanting to do right. As Elisa’s friends, Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins are simply wonderful. Also memorable is Nick Searcy as the military-minded General Hoyt.

    As this fractured fairy tale gently unfolds its love story about ”a princess without voice” and a giant amphibian as her “frog prince”, it all sounds absurd. And it is. But The Shape of Water exists and works its magic so completely that one longs for it to be real. One of the year’s best.

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  • So what is the shape of water anyway?
    Water is a malleable element that assumes the shape of its container. It’s a life-force, an inner quality that can’t be read from its surface. It has no exclusive shape but is a sustaining presence.
    The same can be said for humanity. Humanity is an essential quality that can be found in any number of forms. Here it propels the mute Eliza, the struggling gay artist Giles and reluctant help Delilah, and it is embodied in the mysterious amphibian monster. That natural humanity has been trapped by the US army which intends either his live dissection or his murder to serve the government’s fears.
    That merman seems godlike in his healing powers. That’s because he is a creature of nature, not the species man so long removed from it. He restores Giles’ hair, disappears his wound, cures his own bullet-holes — and ultimately brings eternal life via love to Eliza.
    As an orphan Eliza Esposito is cut off from any earthly roots, but she has an instinctual connection to the source of life, water. Hence her immediate attraction to and sympathy for the merman. She persuades Giles to help save him because of their common humanity, theirs and the merman’s.
    Her job reduces her to cleaning the masters’ piss, blood and excrement. But her humanity has profounder roots than anyone else here. In the opening scene she is asleep and freed into her natural state — floating in an ocean that fills her room, all the furniture bobbing about, until she eases back down to her sofa and awakens into her lesser world, mundane reality. While her egg-timer ticks off her breakfast, she masturbates in her tub, exulting in her freedom, fullness and immersion.
    The film does have a fish out of water, but it’s not the merman. It’s the pie-clerk, a bigot from Ottawa who fakes the chain’s “Southern Hospitality.”
    The film also has an obscene monster but it’s not the merman. It’s the director Strickland. As he grinds his candies and scarfs painkillers he pretends to civilized order, discipline, citizenship, potency, but he’s the film’s biggest loser. He tortures the merman monstrously, sexually threatens Eliza, demeans her and her partner Zelda, and so provokes the audience’s proper rejection that we cheer when his new Cadillac gets crunched.
    Like water and humanity, manhood cannot be characterized by its outer appearance or shape. Zelda has bigger balls than her cowardly husband Brewster. Despite his failure as an illustrator, the gay and lonely Giles proves manlier than Strickland when he helps free the merman, from driving the rescue laundry van to knocking down Strickland to enable the escape.
    So, too, the merman’s flat groin unfurls a sexual potency that fulfills Eliza and brings them eternal love. This while Strickland loses his fingers, which even after reattachment turn black and putrid. He may have saved his “pussy finger” but he’s ultimately emasculated.
    Guillermo del Toro pointedly sets the film in1950s America. That’s the America that the current Republican government aims to restore. Hence the pie-clerk’s and Strickland’s racism, the clerk’s homophobia, Strickland’s sexism, classism and complacent materialism. Strickland is sure “The Lord’s image” is his, not black Zelda’s and certainly not the merman’s. Indeed, he loses the trail when he snaps “What am I doing, interviewing the shit cleaners?”
    As the five-star General Hoyt admonishes him, “Decency is what we export. We don’t use it ourselves.” Their attack on the merman evokes Trump’s evisceration of the EPA, his revival of the murderous coal industry and lately to pillage the national parks and to mine the entire seacoast with oil drilling. To Strickland the mysterious captive natural power is only “the asset” — as negative a positive as one could assign a living creature.
    Though the Russians are as murderous as the American’s, the Russian scientist spy Hofstetler articulates the human value: “I don’t want an intricate, beautiful thing destroyed!” We don’t have to be restricted to our government’s inhumanity.
    Though the film is framed with shots of Eliza floating in a watery world, first during her dream, then liberated with her merman, the film has another frame, Giles’s narration. He tells the story. As he admits its mystery and his incomprehension it represents his blossoming into a fuller self as well as Eliza’s.
    Initially he’s an ex-alcoholic failure struggling to get work drawing ad designs. That’s a very ‘50s profession, sustaining a false dream-life for American consumerism as false as the fantasies screened in the Orpheum under Giles’ and Eliza’s flats. Encountering the merman liberates him too. Giles starts drawing emotional representations of the strange creature and his connection to our humanity. Giles switches his hand and his imagination from selling a false image of happiness to probing our wilder possibilities.

  • As with Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone before it, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a decidedly adult fairy tale that both enchants and troubles. Set in the Baltimore of 1962 and revolving around a “princess with no voice” and “the monster who tried to end it all,” The Shape of Water is a stunning achievement, a genre-blending tale of species-crossing love that also serves as a thoroughly affectionate tribute to a time when escapist cinema was an accepted and not at all condescended upon part of the moviegoing experience.

    “The princess with no voice” is one Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute orphaned since birth who works as a cleaning woman at a secret government laboratory. Living above a movie theater, she looks after her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), an artist and closeted gay man, and is close friends with her perennially talkative co-worker Zelda (a wonderfully sassy and protective Octavia Spencer). She may be silent but she is not without strength and certainly not without her carnal needs, as evidenced by her nightly masturbatory routine before she heads off for work.

    So perhaps it’s no big surprise that her interest, empathy and desires, romantic and otherwise, are piqued when she sets eyes on a fellow outsider, a sea creature (Doug Jones) that’s been brought in to the facility by cruel government agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, playing to type but effective nonetheless). Found in a South American river where the locals viewed him as a god, the creature is being considered by the Americans as a possible means of one-upping the Russians in the race to space. Whilst Strickland immediately reveals himself as “the monster” in this narrative, Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg, the ever-reliable utility player who seems in every prestige film at the moment) unveils himself as a Russian double agent who believes the creature should be kept alive for further study and not killed and dissected as Strickland wishes.

    The mute woman, her gay neighbour, her black female friend, and the lowly scientist band together to save the creature but it’s a testament to del Toro’s storytelling abilities that the film’s underlying social commentary is seamlessly woven into its fairy tale fabric. The same goes for del Toro’s combination of genres – romantic drama, musical, monster movie, fantasy, and spy thriller – which, under any circumstance, would be a nightmare of tonal dissonance. Yet, not only does it work but it works gloriously. It’s hard not to be completely charmed by Elisa and the creature’s romance as she coaxes him out of the water with hard-boiled eggs and jazz records. At one point, the film turns black and white, Elisa starts singing “You’ll Never Know (Just How Much I Love You)” before she and the creature, dressed in top hat and tails, engage in a Fred and Ginger-type dance routine, a sequence that attests to how musicals have the power to transport (a quality sorely missing in last year’s La La Land).

    Cinematographer Dan Laustsen proves himself an especial MVP, his constant camera giving the impression of floating, his eye somehow discover seemingly endless variations of brown and green, and shifting lighting schemes to conjure up the various looks of the classic Hollywood films referenced within. Alexandre Desplat’s score adds to the nostalgia without itself being nostalgic. The cast are exemplary, but it’s fair to say the film very much rests on the slight shoulders of its leading lady, who is in such full control of a character that could have easily been too simpering and saccharine. Instead, Hawkins creates a heroine with a sense of agency, a figure who may have no voice but finds ways of expression, and a woman unafraid to go after what she wants.

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  • “A mystical tale of fish and fingers”.
    Rating: 10*.

    With perfect timing after scooping 13 Oscar nominations, “The Shape of Water” arrives for preview screenings in the UK. Is it worth all the hype?

    Well, in a word, yes.  

    Not since Spielberg entranced the world in 1982 with a love story between an isolated and lonely child and an alien, stranded a million light-years from home, have we seen a magical fairy-tale so well told. 

    Here Lewisham’s own Sally Hawkins (“Paddington”, “Godzilla”) plays Elisa Esposito, an attractive but mousy mute living above a cinema and next door to her best friend: a struggling artist called Giles (Richard Jenkins). Sexually-frustrated, Elisa works out those tensions in the bath every morning before heading off to work as a cleaner at a government research institute. Together with partner Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer, “Hidden Figures”) she is asked to clean a highly secured room where a mysterious aquatic creature is being studied by the cruel and militaristic Strickland (Michael Shannon, “Midnight Special”, “Nocturnal Animals”) and the more compassionate scientist Hoffstetler. (The latter is played by Michael Stuhlbarg (“Miss Sloane”, “Steve Jobs”) in a performance that wasn’t recognised by the Academy, but for me really held the film’s story together). Elisa forms a relationship with the creature, and as the scientific investigations turn darker, she becomes determined to help him. 

    When you think about it, the similarities in the screenplay with E.T. are quite striking. But this is most definitely not a kid’s film, containing full frontal nudity, sex and some considerable violence, some of it “hands-over-the-eyes” worthy. Most of this violence comes courtesy of Shannon’s character, who is truly monstrous. He is uncontrollably vicious, single-minded and amoral: a hand over the mouth to silence his wife during vigourous sex cleverly belies where his true lust currently lies. (Shannon is just so convincing in all of his roles that, after “Nocturnal Animals”, it is a bit of a surprise to see that he is still alive and well!)

    It’s worth pointing out for balance at this point that my wife thought this portrayal was over-egged for its villany, and she rated the film less highly than I did because of it.

    So its no Oscar nomination this time for Shannon as a supporting actor. But that honour goes to Richard Jenkins, who is spectacularly good as the movie-musical-loving and pie-munching neighbour who is drawn unwillingly into Elisa’s plans. Giles is a richly fashioned character – also the film’s narrator – who struggles to fit in with the cruel and rascist 1962 world that he finds himself in. “Sometimes I think I was born too early or too late for my life” he bemoans to the creature whose loneliness he relates to. A scene in a cafe where he fastidiously wipes all traces of pie-filling from his tongue is masterfully done.  

    Octavia Spencer is also Oscar nominated for Best Supporting Actress, and it’s a magical partnership she shares with Hawkins, with each bouncing off each other wonderfully.

    This leads to a ‘no brainer’ Oscar nomination for Sally Hawkins who delivers a star turn. She has to go through such a huge range of emotions in this film, and she genuinely makes you really care about the outcome like few films this year. It’s a little tricky since I haven’t seen “I Tonya” or “Ladybird” yet, but I would have thought that Ms Hawkins is going to possibly give Frances McDormand the closest run for her money on March 4th. My money would still be on McDormand for “3 Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, but the Oscar voters are bound to love “The Shape of Water”. For like “La La Land” last year, the film is (rather surprisingly for me) another love letter to Hollywood’s golden years, with Elisa and Giles living out their lives with classic movie music and dance numbers: a medium that Elisa only ever truly finds here “voice” through.

    In the technical categories the Oscar nominations were for Cinematography (Dan Laustsen); Film Editing (Sidney Wolinsky); Sound Editing (Nathan Robitaille and Nelson Ferreira); Sound Mixing (Glen Gauthier, Christian Cooke and Brad Zoern); Production Design (Paul D. Austerberry, Jeffrey A. Melvin and Shane Vieau); Original Score (Alexandre Desplat) and Costume Design (Luis Sequeira). And you really wouldn’t want to bet against any of these not to win, for the film is a technical delight. Right from the dreamlike opening titles (arguably, they missed a deserved nomination here for Visual Effects), the film is gorgeous to look at, with such brilliant detail in the production design that there is interesting stuff to look at in every frame. And the film editing is extraordinary: Elisa wobbles on the bucket she’s standing on, but it’s Strickland’s butt, perched on a table, that slips off. This is a film that deserves multiple repeat viewings.

    An the helm is the multi-talented Guillermo del Toro (“Pacific Rim”, “Crimson Peak”) who both directed and co-wrote the exceptionally smart screenplay (with Vanessa Taylor, “Divergent”) and is nominated for both. I actually found the story to be rather predictable, as regards Elisa’s story arc, but that in no way reduced my enjoyment of the film. For the “original screenplay” is nothing if not “original”…. it’s witty, intelligent and shocking at different turns.  

    The violence and sex won’t be for everyone… but this is a deep and rich movie experience that everyone who loves the movies should at least appreciate… hopefully in a dry cinema! 

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  • “The natives in the Amazon worshipped it.
    Like a god.
    We need to take it apart, learn how it works.”

    I’ve watched this movie the night before the Oscar ceremony, because I could feel it in my bones this film would possibly win that coveted statuette. Initially, I didn’t want to post my opinion about this winner. But as I had partially written down my opinion, I thought I would smooth off the rough edges and post it anyway. To be honest, I’m not part of the great crowd of admirers of “The shape of water“. Even though I was looking forward to it with great expectations and knew it was a creation made by Guillermo del Toro (I appreciated his previous films) I was only moderately enthusiastic about it. In the end I stayed behind with a “that’s it ?” feeling. Why the jurors of the academy massively fell in love with this film, still is a mystery to me. I didn’t think it was so earth-shattering, breathtaking or groundbreaking.

    In retrospect, you could compare this film with “Free Willy“. Only the amphibious creature that needs to be rescued rather looks like the monster of “Creature from the Black Lagoon“. And as in “Free Willy“, where Jesse wanted to free his best friend, it’s Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) who got the job of freeing the imprisoned creature. Only the friendship between Jesse and Willy wasn’t as passionate and they didn’t get caught while doing sensual stuff. Elisa and her scaly friend soon figured out how to get things going. Or rather, Elisa soon knew where her sweet sprat was hiding his stinger. So you can expect some wet scenes. And the facility where the government locked away the feared cretature (under military supervision) so they can experiment with it, was probably designed by an interior architect who’s influenced by the interior style that you could admire in the Nautilus.

    “The shape of water” is of course more than just a rescue mission that has been set up by a cleaning lady without sound. A cleaning lady whose compassion causes her to start smuggling hard boiled eggs inside and draw up a plan (bigger than that in “The Great Escape“) to save the poor merman. “The shape of water” is also more than just a romantic concoction in which a scrumptious cleaning lady throws herself into the fins of a wondrous creature and loses herself completely after looking deep into those bulging fish eyes. Guillermo Del Torro denounces indifference and prejudice and makes it the central theme. A theme that also applies in our contemporary society. Being different as an individual and the excluding and exploiting by those who see themselves as normal, is symbolized here in many ways. A cleaning lady who is voiceless. And her colleague (Octavia Spencer) who has a different skin color. A somewhat older, homosexual neighbor (Richard Jenkins) whose flirtation was not appreciated by the owner of an ice-cream shop. And last but not least the miraculous seahorse. First a riddle and afterwards a threat.

    Just like in “Crimson Peak“, again Del Torro delivers a visually overwhelming spectacle. The used images are at times magical and atmospheric. Elisa’s residence and the colorful advertising posters made by the neighbor. The cinema complex and the ice cream bar that exhale the atmosphere of the 1960s. The military complex that looks sterile and metallic, full of obscure secrets and where less attractive experiments are carried out. It all looks perfect and breathtaking. And such quality needs of course high quality acting. This sublime acting is taken care of by renowned actors. Sally Hawkins is as enchanting as her salted new friend. And even though there is no sound coming out of her mouth, she knows how to grasp you by using her highly expressive facial expressions. Michael Shannon was also briliant as the dominant and cruel government agent who (with apparent pleasure) tests his taser on our fishy guy. He’s a pervert whose sexual urges go into overdrive when the partner stays silent during the act. No wonder his hormones go haywire after seeing (and not hearing) Elisa. Finally, kudos for Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer.

    Without a doubt, Guillermo del Toro is a master in visualizing and a kind of visionary. He creates a unique atmosphere in his films that you hardly be able to take it all in. I’m never really overwhelmed by the content of his films though. Perhaps the message is sophisticated enough. But every time I have that feeling it’s incomplete somehow. I suppose that the simmering topic in this film is in line with the values that were spread out this year during the awards. The equality of genders. Not tolerating cross-border behavior. And the fact that the Academy Awards are a more white-tinted business. I guess it’s all about striking the right chords.

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