Colin Vanden Berg
Assoc. Arts & Culture Editor
In The Shape of Water, director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) imagines a Cold War era love story between a mute (Sally Hawkins) and a strange humanoid creature (Doug Jones in a prosthetic body suit), which garners interest from both the United States and Soviet Union. Stellar performances and astounding production design elevate the slightly conventional narrative, resulting in must-see cinema for independent film lovers. Casual film fans, however, may have difficulty digesting the film’s more outlandish and artsy elements.
Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mute janitor at a government facility in Washington DC during the Cold War. She becomes fascinated with the strange amphibian creature brought in for study by project leader Richard Strickland (Michal Shannon). Elisa’s strange attraction to the creature unknowingly puts her in opposition with Strickland, who has his own plans for the creature involving the American and Soviet governments.
The film’s plot is intriguing, but fairly predictable due in part to Shannon’s stock villain character being the driving force of the narrative. His bigoted, single-minded authority figure who ruthlessly harangues the heroes has been seen in films like Avatar, Tarzan, Pocahontas, and several others. As such, the film has a telegraphed ending, but not a completely telegraphed resolution. What the script lacks in subtlety is more than made up for by Del Torro’s masterful direction, infusing the film with so much atmosphere and tension that the emotional love story still has its desired effect.
The drama comes more from the excellent acting and character work—another benefit of the direction—than from the narrative. Hawkins and Jones wordlessly sell the bizarre romance with powerhouse performances. Also, Shannon adds just enough pathos to his screen-chewing performance to keep the character unique and engaging.
In fairness, the generic script doesn’t become terribly noticeable or distracting until the third act, when a few too many artsy scenes which serve theme and character rather story drag the pacing leading up to the climax. Until a certain point, the brilliance of the acting and stunning art direction more than compensate for the simplistic story. The film looks stunning, as Del Torro lovingly recreates the 1960s; he also shoots and lights the film in such a way that every character action—no matter how subtle—pops on screen.
On a technical level, The Shape of Water is practically flawless. The story—though simple—is still impeccably executed. The actors fill in all the gaps in the narrative in the narrative with performances that are as powerful as they are authentic. Del Torra and the actors transport you to 1960s America, where you gladly stay for all two hours of the runtime. That is, if you can see past the barebones and predictable story, and allows yourself to get swept up in the blissful innocence of the romance between a mute woman and a fish person.