“Unable to perceive the shape of You, I find You all around me.
Your presence fills my eyes with Your love,
It humbles my heart,
For You are everywhere.”
Guillermo del Toro, helmer of award-winning films such as Pan’s Labyrinth, fantasy films such as the Hellboy franchise, and dark horror films such as Mimic, brings his newest film to theatres, the visually stunning The Shape of Water.
In The Shape of Water, Sally Hawkins is Elisa, a mute woman who works as a cleaning lady in a top secret government laboratory in 1962. Her only friend at the lab is Zelda, portrayed by Octavia Spencer. When she is not at the lab, Elisa shares a loft with and helps take care of a man named Giles, portrayed by Richard Jenkins. Elisa’s mundane life takes a turn for the fantastic when she stumbles upon the lab’s biggest secret: an Amazonian amphibian man living in a water tank. As she develops a unique bond with the creature, she learns its future is in the hands of a malicious government official, portrayed by Michael Shannon, and the lab’s biologist, portrayed by Michael Stuhlbarg. Realising what her attachment with the creature can truly be, Elisa decides to take matters into her own hands.
We are introduced to Elisa in a dream state. As Elisa seems to dream of an underwater life beyond her own, she floats down through a water filled room before her alarm clock wrenches us back into reality. As we follow Elisa cleaning daily at the lab, a grimy set piece that is perfectly suited to 1962, the intermittent underwater imagery of her dreams is captivating. We meet the creature and witness its primitive nature for the first time as it’s brought in in a tank. Elisa and Zelda are assigned to clean the creature’s area of the lab, and Elisa embarks on the journey of bridging the gap between herself and the creature. Thus begins her bond with the amphibian man and her ambition to protect him when he is threatened by the officials at the lab.
Of the many terrific moments in the film, one that stands out is a near ten minute long scene in which Elisa, Zelda, Giles, and the lab’s biologist smuggle the amphibian man out of the lab to escape the government’s deadly threat. This tense sequence is delivered to the audience flawlessly and coupled with a versatile and harmonious musical cue.
Alexandre Desplat’s score is wonderful. It’s beautifully mysterious and engrossing. It takes you by the hand and carries you on a waltz through the film. Multiple cues involve accordion, harp, and whistling, and accompany being underwater effortlessly. Other cues are so thickly orchestrated that they sound as if they are from a film released in the 1950s or ‘60s. That’s perfect given The Shape of Water’s 1962 setting. Overall, if you need evidence that Desplat is one of the best composers of film music that truly fits what’s on screen, just listen to his score for The Shape of Water.
The central theme of finding and fighting for love is executed very well. An ethical discussion arises in response to Elisa’s budding attachment to the creature, and the second act of the film deals with whether we as humans should act when another is in danger, especially if the one in danger is viewed by some as an ‘other’. The third act of the film reveals the true nature of the amphibian man, his connection to Elisa, and whether the government officials will be able to get in the way of that. It is ultimately a climax that is sweet and unexpected.
Sally Hawkins’ performance through acting and sign language is deeply emotive and particularly delightful. Michael Shannon is in top form as an evil, slimy character we all easily hate, and Octavia Spencer is sweet comedic relief as the story unfolds.
The greatest key to The Shape of Water’s success is its flawless pairing of music and image. The character, timbre, and moving nature of Desplat’s score melds with del Toro’s imagery exquisitely. Whether a moment of perceived sympathy, love, or tension, del Toro and Desplat’s work combine to produce a superb craft.
The Shape of Water is strange, grand, and charming. If delightfully extraordinary and alluring films are your fancy, this is a film you’ll enjoy from start to finish. I will say that the film easily earns its ’15’ rating (there are a few scenes that are not necessarily appropriate for younger folks). But that aside, I’d encourage anyone to let The Shape of Water take them by the hand and lead them out of their day-to-day existence and into the whimsical world Guillermo del Toro and Alexandre Desplat have created.
The Shape of Water hits UK cinemas on 14 February. Why not check out our previous thoughts on Del Toro’s movie when we covered it during last year’s London Film Festival?