An Improbable Love Story

Making a film that is both beloved by audiences and revered, or at least respected by critics, is no easy task. There is a reason why most people haven’t seen, or even heard of, the films frequently nominated for best picture by the Academy. Attempting to pander to the crowd results in a lack of a strong sense of independent identity while passion projects often end up as niche films, lucky to be seen by a small percentage of the population. A cult classic, if lucky. So when a film like The Shape of Water comes along, it’s not all that surprising to see the praise heaped upon it.   

This was an idea writer/director Guillermo Del Toro had in mind since childhood and could have easily been a overly ambitious. Fortunately, much of his youthful wonderment rolls over into the finished project and it doesn’t hurt that the film is made with exceptional quality is all avenues of the craft. Del Toro’s patented visual style paints a stylish, vivid picture of the space race era during the periphery of the cold war in 1960s and Paul Austerberry’s production design melded elements of the fantastic with grounded period-authenticity. Co-written with Vanessa Taylor, the screenplay is quite strong. Filled with heart and passion while still remarkably down to earth, especially when it came to character construction. There were really only six primary characters and each of them are well thought out with attention to the plot.

Considering it’s the story of a mute janitor who develops a bond with a mysterious aquatic creature being held captive by the government, it still effectively suspends disbelief…mostly. However, there are two glaring problems with the plot. Firstly, it’s one thing for the character to come in to clean up at the behest of her superiors but another thing entirely for her to have discretionary access to the most classified areas. You can’t describe the creature as ‘the most sensitive asset the facility has ever housed’ and allow the janitor to take her lunch break in there. It just didn’t add up. Secondly, the general lack of security in a clandestine US government facility during the cold war seems very suspect. There are cameras, in the halls and loading dock but (conveniently) none monitoring the asset and no one really watching the cameras all that well either. You would think they’d run a tighter, more secure ship after openly expressing concerns about Russian espionage…but hey, to each their own. These are hurdles that disrupt plot mechanisms, so I can understand why they were glossed over. But as an audience member, they don’t really get in the way of enjoying the film as a whole.

While this movie was made by Del Toro, it unquestionably belongs to Sally Hawkins. She was fabulous in the lead as Elisa Esposito, a mute and member of the cleaning crew at a military aerospace research facility. While she doesn’t have traditional dialogue, her use of sign language along with adept body language cues and facial expressions was a masterful on multiple levels. She’s compelling to watch from her introduction all the way through the journey of her character arc. While Hawkins is an unassuming presence on screen, that’s what made her perfect for the role and helped her excel in it. She will likely be at, or near, the front of the pack to take home Best Actress honors.

There were plenty of strong supporting performances bolstering this film and Robin D. Cook cast a talented, veteran cast which helped to create a world as rich in character as it was visually. Taking the reigns as the primary antagonist was the always enjoyable Michael Shannon, playing the imposing and intimidating head of security Richard Strickland. His pseudo-christian exterior gradually gave way to an obsessive, maniacal persona which Shannon portrayed with a terrifyingly skillful madness…echoing memories of Heath Ledger’s Joker as he descended further into madness. As Elisa’s polar opposite, the character juxtaposition couldn’t have played out any better with Hawkins and Shannon working off one another wonderfully on screen. There’s a good chance he’ll find himself on the Academy’s list of nominees for Best Supporting Actor for the second year in a row.

Shannon’s supporting role wasn’t the only stellar one, Richard Jenkins was excellent as Giles. He is Elisa’s neighbor and defacto best friend. An older gay man living alone with his cats, trying desperately to regain his former position. There are hard implications that Giles was at least moderately successful until his sexual preference became an issue, which fits the period narrative well and lends an additional layer of depth to his character. It’s a safe bet to assume Jenkins had a good bit of fun playing the role because his enthusiasm jumps off the screen. He’s one of those character actors that’s been in everything and played a hundred different roles, so it was a really enjoyable to watch him cut loose in a high-profile, featured role. His story was directly tied to Elisa’s character narrative and more intimately portrayed, so it would be nice to see Jenkins get a Best Supporting Actor nod for his splendid efforts, but he and Shannon will likely split the vote.

Octavia Spencer and Michael Stuhlbarg deliver strong performances in important supporting roles as well. Spencer plays Zelda, a co-worker who’s constantly doing her best to look out for Elisa, venting about her husband Bruce and typically carrying on the conversation by herself. Her position was critical in helping to establish Elisa’s everyday life and normalise her experience. While she was strong in the role, it wasn’t much of a departure from other roles she is known for. Stuhlbarg on the other hand continued to diversify his rapidly expanding portfolio playing Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, the creature team’s head scientist. He displayed a knack for emotional cues to go along with his unique blend of stoic resolve. Stuhlbarg’s distinctive talents may not bring him any individual honors this year, but he has found himself in three of the films in consideration for Best Picture…The Post and Call Me By Your Name being the other two.

And of course we can’t forget Doug Jones who played the amphibian man, oddly enough a very similar looking character to the one he played in Del Toro’s Hellboy films. Much like Hawkins in the lead, the creature doesn’t have any dialogue and relies mainly on gestures, expressions and sign language with an occasional monstrous noise of some kind scattered in. Jones is no stranger to physical acting and always manages to convey a surprising amount of emotion through this creatures.

Mike Hill designed a wonderful creature, an updated take on the Gill Man from Creature from the Black Lagoon which was Del Toro’s inspiration. The special effects team did a fantastic job, where effects shots aren’t dominating the shots but rather adding additional layers of intricacy. Building a more robust and stimulating experience. Shane Vieau and Jeffrey Melvin designed some amazingly detailed sets for this film, especially when it came to the homes of Elisa and Giles. The distinct differences convey unspoken character qualities and go a long way in crafting the characters.

There was a strong musical element in direct correlation to the lack of dialogue, especially in building the relationship between Elisa and the Amphibian Man. Alexandre Desplat composed a beautiful score that carried a very strong European vibe, even though the film is set in the United States and filmed in Canada. Dan Lausten’s cinematography helped to paint a similar picture, capturing many of the psuedo-European elements in the surrounding. Much of the imagery is contrasted depending which character is on screen, creating more defined lanes for each of them and drawing a line in the sand aesthetically. Strickland’s buttoned down existence highlighted by his Cadillac only serves to enrich Elisa’s world with life and color that simply doesn’t exist for him. That kind of attention to detail provides subtle depth which makes the overall experience much more rewarding.

You’re not going to see anything like this among the crop of 2017 films…you probably won’t see anything else like this, period. Based on the overwhelmingly positive response, I had expected at least a bit of disappointment on the back end. However, there’s really nothing bad to say about it. There are some elements that may be a turn off to some, like semi-graphic sexuality or some political aspects. When it comes time for the big show, there’s no reason why this can’t win Best Picture.

Recommendation: See it. At just north of 2 hours, it doesn’t feel long and is paced well. A very interesting love story, it’s a good date movie. This is likely a bit heavy for younger kids. The R rating is appropriate but doesn’t necessarily disqualify it from a family outing, just be warned.

Grade: A