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The Shape of Water Review: Guillermo Del Toro’s Gorgeous Love Story Is About Something Far More Human

Guillermo Del Toro's The Shape Of Water isn't just a film but a plea for acceptance in our increasingly polarized world.

Shantanu David |

Updated:May 4, 2018, 2:01 PM IST
The Shape of Water Review: Guillermo Del Toro’s Gorgeous Love Story Is About Something Far More Human
A still from the film, 'The Shape of Water'. (Photo courtesy: FOX SEARCHLIGHT)
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon
Director: Guillermo Del Toro

In Crimson Peak, Guillermo Del Toro’s last directorial outing, Mia Wachowski’s character, a fledgling and fiercely feminist writer, tells a potential publisher that her novel isn’t a ghost story; rather it’s a story with a ghost in it, the ghost being a metaphor for the past. The editor smiles paternally and mansplains that she should include a love story in order for it to sell. Apparently Guillermo took that exchange to heart with The Shape Of Water. And given that the film has 13 Oscar nominations, I guess it worked.

Elisa Esposito (an incredible Sally Hawkins) is a diminutive woman with a seemingly mundane job in a seemingly exciting place (she’s a cleaner at a secret quasi-governmental military research station during the hottest part of the Cold War). Despite being mute – her vocal chords were mysteriously removed when she was a baby – and being brought up in an orphanage, Elisa isn’t lacking in spirit or even a voice. She is the singular light in the otherwise dreary existence of her elderly, gay neighbor Giles (the ever-fantastic Richard Jenkins) who is struggling to find work.

At work, her best friend is the ebullient Zelda (a magnificent Octavia Spencer) whose endless patter on being African-American, a woman and the wife to a typically childish man, is suffused with humor as much as it is with bitter truths. Their daily routine of cleaning up after soldiers, scientists and military experiments is disrupted by the arrival of The Asset (Doug Jones aka the other Andy Serkis), an amphibious man-creature captured from the South American rainforests by the racist, sexist, and sadistic Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon being his most Michael Shannon-esque). Trotting at his heels is the apparently tame Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (a quietly effective Michael Stuhlbarg), the scientist tasked with understanding how The Asset can survive in the extremes of both water and land, in order to help the US win their ongoing race against the Russians, and enable a man – an American man obviously – to survive in outer space.

So naturally, the mute girl and the Amphibian Man find commonality in their differences, fall in love and try and be together with the help of Giles, Zelda and Dr. Hoffstetler, who’s actually a Soviet spy (with a conscience). But it’s about so much more than just the odd couple and their love. It’s about a black couple being turned away from an empty diner by an otherwise polite and friendly manager. It’s about Giles whose enforced closeted existence leads him to fall into alcoholism and stumble out of employment. It’s about Strickland telling his wife to stay silent while they have sex or talking down to Zelda because she’s black and a woman or constantly referring to The Asset as ‘it’ or being a generally horrible person, who thinks of himself as a righteous and “decent” man. It’s about being marginalized for being different and being objectified for being a woman.

At first glance, everything about The Shape Of Water screams “Oscar Bait.” There are the frequent allusions to the bygone Golden Age of Hollywood juxtaposed against McCarthyism as well as the civil rights movement that occurred before, during and after the same period. The film takes place roughly in the autumn of 1963 (“13 years since the Battle of Pusan”) a few weeks before the assassination of President John F Kennedy whom you can hear in the background, speaking about the communist threat over the radio. Even apart from Kennedy’s assassination, 1963 was a watershed moment in US (and subsequently) world history. It was the year Martin Luther King told his fellow oppressed people that he had a dream and it was the year that Americans found out that the Beatles wanted to hold their hand, sparking the frenzy that was Beatlemania, and its resultant hippie era.

And because it is a film by Guillermo Del Toro, it is breathtakingly beautiful. While the film’s setting means that the usual baroque meets steampunk aesthetic that the director is so fond of is kept to a minimum, he manages to capture the look and sound and feel of America when it was the land of the Cadillac El Dorado with an entire world waiting for these United States to franchise out Yankee-fied democracy and capitalism (apart from those pesky Soviets with their alternative ‘hammer and sickle’ branding who were beating the Americans in the Space Race).

The Shape Of Water captures all these elements gorgeously, but finally it’s the people that stride and float and swim through those elements that truly make the film spectacular. Elisa and the amphibian man may be the heart of the story but they are by no means the whole of it. Because The Shape Of Water isn’t a love story; rather it’s story with love in it. But there are many other things too. There is hate, there is suspicion, there is fear, there is doubt - there is all that ugliness that came out of an apocryphal Pandora’s Box. And just like in that tale, there is also hope. And that’s not just because it’s been made by a Mexican filmmaker in Trump’s America.

Ultimately, it’s a story of acceptance. It’s about accepting people no matter the color of their skin, or the things and people that they love, or simply the way they choose to live. With the world we live becoming ever more polarized, where fear-mongering and hate-filled divisive speech are no longer whispered in smoke-filled rooms but SHOUTED OUT across all manner of social media platforms, The Shape Of Water isn’t just a movie; it is a plea for decency, for respect of one another and for acceptance. It's about realizing that, in the end, a person is like water. The way we see them is simply the shape of the silo we put them in.

Rating: 4.5/5

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