When a film has a fantastical premise, it must naturalize that concept in order to sell it to an audience that doesn’t come from that world. It’s an achievement that’s often underappreciated and overlooked, but, when done well, it can result in cinematic magic.
Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water follows Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman working in an underground government facility, and the facility’s captured amphibian man (Doug Jones) with whom she falls in love. And due to cohesive, visually beautiful and thematically rich work from all departments, the film is perhaps the epitome of that kind of magic.
The most emotionally moving layer of The Shape of Water is its theme of the other. del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor pace out Elisa’s growing attachment to the creature so smoothly and precisely, and center it on moments personally meaningful to the characters. The creature is a being that doesn’t communicate with language the way humans do and grows a bond with Elisa through action and sign language. And in a stunning scene from Hawkins, Elisa explains that she feels so close to this creature because he can’t understand that she’s mute — or how she is, as she says, “incomplete.”
The framing of character, mainly in regard to Elisa, but also in how the same might be true for the creature, grabs the viewer’s heart with full force as it relies on vulnerability forced upon these two by a world unaccepting. The scenes with only these two are transcendent, concoctions of Alexandre Desplat’s floating score, Dan Laustsen’s swimming cinematography, visually arresting craft work from the likes of makeup and production design, and just the beauty of the concept of the moments in the first place.
Much of it wouldn’t work, though, if Sally Hawkins weren’t a powerhouse. Dialogue can often be a cop out in explaining a character’s traits and motivations, so the fact that we understand Elisa as well as we do any other character in film this year is an accomplishment nearly beyond words. Hawkins leverages physicality, not just in sign language, but in how she signs, in how her eyes communicate with the other character in the scene, in how she moves through rooms and hallways with a levity and wonder that tell us exactly what Elisa is thinking.
Yet, the rest of the cast is also magnificent. Richard Jenkins’ performance as Giles is lived in, an almost foil to Hawkins’ mute character as his is full of words. But we get the same sense — of course, individualized in its specifics — of how Giles himself feels incomplete, of how he’s been othered. And his chemistry with Hawkins is just delightful, resulting in an onscreen friendship that is so depthful and lovely.
Michael Shannon also thrives as the film’s antagonist, Richard Strickland. For some storytellers, there might’ve been an inclination to offer Strickland less development than he receives here, and it would’ve been understandable, which is why it’s so refreshing that del Toro and Taylor dive deep into his psychology. We get a sense of his motivations and see those expanded upon, and Shannon’s growling sneer is the perfect device to take it all even further.
In fact, there’s so much going on in every minute of The Shape of Water. Beneath everything, Guillermo del Toro offers a love letter to cinema of the past, similarly to La La Land, and two particular scenes, one being a tender musical ode and the other a striking and gritty noir sequence, are delicious.
But what sticks with us about this film is that empathy that’s offered to its characters. The visuals are stunning — no one does fantasy and truly sells it and layers it into every corner of the frame quite like del Toro — but those visuals are even more memorable because of the tone of empathy that del Toro injects into it all.
The Shape of Water asks us to care for one another, to listen to those who feel incomplete and not only help them feel otherwise, but fully support the life they want to live. And that is a kind of story worth championing.
Featured image via Fox Searchlight Pictures.