The Shape of Water (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Those with a penchant for strange love stories, especially the dark fairytale kind, will surely gravitate toward “The Shape of Water,” a pensive and melancholy look into the lives lonely and yearning individuals during the Cold War. It can be argued that perhaps the most interesting element of the film is that it works as a gargantuan metaphor for our basic need as a species to be loved and accepted, whether that someone be an ordinary citizen who just so happens to be a mute to a curiosity that is so exotic that the foreigner is considered an entirely different creature altogether. In a way, the work is a celebration of so-called freaks of society for they find a way to rise to the challenge and pave the way for the future.
Equally interesting is the structure of the picture. Unlike ordinary fantastic love stories, director Guillermo del Toro chooses for his project to have an extended exposition to the point where it takes up nearly half of the film’s running time. While this approach is certain to challenge viewers, especially those who crave unsubtle action right away, I found that this communicates the fact that the veteran filmmaker has a special confidence in the material. Unconcerned about time pressures or following expected beats and rhythms, del Toro ensures that we understand our heroine named Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a night janitor in a research center housing a humanoid amphibian to be used as a model for a weapon against the Russians, before any semblance of romance takes center stage.
Hawkins plays the mute character with such grace. It is easy to dismiss a performance when the actor does not say a word, but those who take the time to look closely and examine the intricacies of how she expresses a range of emotions will be rewarded. My advice: Occasionally ignore the yellow subtitles altogether. Instead, focus on her face, those eyes, the tension on her hands and fingers, how she holds her arms just so, and how she uses her mouth to expresses how she feels, what she thinks, and what wants to accomplish. A point can be made that it is more difficult to create a believable character, and keep her interesting, when one cannot vocalize.
Director of photography Dan Laustsen creates such a unique-looking world that it is almost like into a gem. Notice how hues of blue and green pervade the screen, not just in the laboratory where the tortured creature (Doug Jones) is kept but also the outdoors of rain-soaked streets, the gloomy apartments of singles who dream of an alternate life where they partnered, loved unconditionally. Partnered with del Toro’s direction, Laustsen’s cinematography, despite blues and greens usually pointing toward cold sentiments, can also communicate warmth, hope, and home. The penultimate and final scenes support this observation.
Despite the film having a running time of two hours, I found that this is not long enough. I wished to know more about the co-worker (Octavia Spencer) who always looks out for Elisa, the romantic struggles of Elisa’s aging homosexual neighbor (Richard Jenkins), and the villainous man (Michael Shannon) who caught the amphibian. While we do get one or two scenes that depict these characters’ personal lives, they come across rather episodic. Yet despite this shortcoming, “The Shape of Water” is absolutely worth a look-see.