It’s hard to believe that a monster flick about a fish man, a mute, and the Cold War can be so easily digestible. But here we are. The Shape of Water smashed expectations by standing alongside Oscar-bait best pictures like a coming of age story, a psychological thriller, another coming of age story, an historical drama, an historical drama, an historical drama, and an historical drama starring Meryl Streep. It’s that oddball from homeroom who somehow made it to track and field finals alongside the jocks and the good-at-everythings. The Shape of Water is enough of a charming story that qualifying as a contender made us proud on its behalf. And then it won. Hot damn. The dark horse is changing the game.
This isn’t a story about famous politicians or rich white folk who eat peaches on the patio. The Shape of Water takes place almost exclusively at night and stars a science experiment that mingles with the janitorial staff. Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mute woman who lives across from a lonely old neighbour, Giles (Richard Jenkins), in an apartment above the movie theatre. She and her friend, Zelda/Octavia Spencer, work as cleaners on the night shift at a mysterious lab that runs strange experiments. The latest curiosity to be wheeled in is an amphibian man (Doug Jones… under layers) that the malicious Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) captured in South America. Elisa takes pity on the creature and his treatment by the scientists, and tries to ease his suffering with nightly gifts of hardboiled eggs. Instead of a monster, Elisa finds a kindred spirit who, like herself, communicates beyond language. As the weeks go by, Elisa grows fonder of the man-fish and more convinced that it is her duty to love and protect him.
It’s a great story. A little left of centre, perhaps, but something we are definitely thirsty for. The Shape of Water is pure, unfiltered imagination. It is beautiful. It may be awkward, but it stumbles charmingly. I wouldn’t make the same decisions as Elisa – most are totally beyond me – but that’s because I’m not head over flippers for a merman. I would never fill my bathroom to the ceiling with water, but then again, I’ve never felt the need to. Love is odd and it makes people do weird things. The engaging part is that every character who supports Elisa also supports her decisions, no matter how supernaturally atypical. I may not like Ketchup in my Kraft Dinner, but some people do and I fully support their culinary peculiarities.
It helps that Elisa is so perfectly lovable. We’re introduced to this delightful woman whose flaws only draw us in. She rolls through a daily routine that keeps her content, productive, and just social enough to add a pinch of variety. She could be me, or you, or that woman reading billboards on the bus. It didn’t take long before I was fully invested in Elisa’s happiness. When she meets the amphibian man, her first feelings aren’t fear or disgust, but pity and curiosity. Learning about him sparks a whole new purpose in life. They were meant to find each other and connect on a level that we’re not meant to understand.
But… he’s a fish? Yes, indeed, the handsome hunk in The Shape of Water is a man fish. A giant guppy. A tall glass of water in more literal ways than ever before. And why not? We go bananas every time The Rock plays a half human/half god on his five-year cycle. The Shape of Water has more in common with Beauty and the Beast than Godzilla and there have been multiple adaptations of both. The Shape of Water is a love story but it’s just as alluring as a thriller, a racial commentary, or a philosophical suspense that has me hunting for my old copy of Frankenstein. It’s a dynamic story that’s enjoyable on multiple levels, fitting more than just one mood.
It’s also visually beautiful. The Shape of Water plays with shadows, reflections, lamp light, and window panes to set a mood, a tension, and a mystery. Did Guillermo del Toro want us to see his movie through a puddle? Or does the absence of sunlight signify something deeper in this story about misunderstood monsters? With nothing organic about the lab, the apartment, the bus, or the underpass, del Toro’s characters can’t help but fill the void with natural affection and a wild appreciation for life. They’re like that delicate but fervid image of a canary in a coal mine.
The set design and cinematography blend into this perfectly dark but sweet tone, and the music – a passionate mix of European flavours – dances along with wonder and discovery. Other than another of Octavia Spencer’s uniform characters, The Shape of Water is a magnificently original film that had me floating along, cringing, and laughing at how uniquely weird people can be. It’s something I haven’t seen before. I was wrapped up in a love story that I couldn’t relate to but still empathized with thanks to its fierce and loveable characters. The Shape of Water sparks a new trend of imaginative movies that I hope catches on. It’s a unique 10/10.