To describe The Shape of Water is much like trying to explain a dream to friends. In your mind, it makes perfect sense, its magical air is as clear to you as if you had lived through it. But when the time comes to put that dream into words, it becomes somewhat of a jigsaw puzzle jumbled up with several others. Crucial details are missing and folk stare at you, bewildered at how your brain could possibly have come up with something so… well, weird.
Guillermo del Toro’s latest offering certainly has a dream-like quality to it. Throughout the film, aquamarine blues and greens dominate, making the film feel as if you inhabit an aquarium.
Its plot centres upon Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a lonely and mute cleaning lady at a high security governmental research facility, who feels like an outsider in 1960s, Cold War America. Her friends, Zelda, a black woman (Octavia Spencer), and Giles, a gay man (Richard Jenkins), are equally on the outskirts of their contemporary environment and so create a perfect, microcosmic trio representing the oppressed and marginalised in the 1960s. If you are looking for the perfect team to triumph against evil, this is it.
The opportunity comes for them with the arrival of a mysterious half-man, half-amphibian river creature at Elisa and Zelda’s place of work. Placed under the care of super-villain, Strickland (Michael Shannon), the river creature, known as the Asset, is subject to abuse from Strickland and his liberal use of an electric cattle prod.
Called in to clear up the mess after one of these debacles, Elisa discovers the existence of the Asset. Through their mutual silence, a strange mixture of sign language, tap dance and Elisa’s constant supply of hard-boiled eggs, they bond.
From here on, the film flows together, merging any and every kind of cinematic genre. The film is heavily influenced by Beauty and the Beast and the first half assumes a Disneyesque quality. Vivid colours, fantastical settings and a highly romanticised – albeit quite depressing – portrayal of its characters’ existence, create the perfect context for the triumph of the underdog.
Del Toro’s attention to detail is also something of a marvel. The costumes, the sets and the beautiful period cars set an instantly recognisable 1960s backdrop, with a charming and sharply cartoon-like quality. The super-villain has a dominant brow and our silent hero has a face capable of expressing an entire dictionary.
Hawkins’ performance ultimately lifts the movie. When the story verges on wearing thin, Hawkins’ unassuming, yet observant, face transforms itself with each smile, frown and look of puzzlement in such a way that easily rivals the greatest of silent movie stars. Even as the plot takes surprisingly conventional and predictable turns, Hawkins and her companions propel the movie forwards.
The Shape of Water is certainly a thing of beauty. Minutely stylised from start to finish, it is a film that is undeniably aesthetically pleasing, with a perfect mixture of the recognisable and fantastic. Its ethereal soundtrack, created by Alexandre Desplat, adds to the film’s aquatic and mysterious ambience as whistles and playful melodies resemble haunting whale calls.
However, just like trying to give shape to water, the film seems to take on an intangible form. The fantasy is present throughout, but the sudden veer into action and thriller jars, particularly when the plot continues to pursue a romantically happy ending. Resoundingly applauded by critics, the film has elements which definitely deserve this level of praise but, in this instance, Del Toro might have created a film a little too fluid in its structure.
By Hannah Forsyth
The Shape of Water is screening at Glasgow Film Theatre between the 19th of February – 5th of March. Anyone aged between 15 and 25 can get a free card from GFT that entitles them to £5.50 tickets to any standard screening.