The Shape of Water (2017)

This Golden Lion (Best Film, Venice Film Festival) and four Oscars winner is a mesmerizing and enchanting cinematic experience that effortlessly blends fantasy, romance and social commentary.

2/28/20245 min read

Sally Hawkins and Dough Jones in 'The Shape of Water'
Sally Hawkins and Dough Jones in 'The Shape of Water'

English, Russian, 118 mins, 2017

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Dough Jones, Nicholas Searcy, Michael Stuhlbarg

Awards: Won Golden Lion and Best Soundtrack (Alexandre Desplat), Venice Film Festival, 2017; Won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original score and Best Production Design, and nominated in 9 categories, Academy Awards, 2018; Won, Best Director and Best Original score and Nominated for 5 categories, Golden Globe Awards, 2018; Won Best Direction, Best Film Music and Best Production Design and nominated in 9 categories, BAFTA Awards, 2018. In total the film won 91 awards and 263 Nominations.

Set against the backdrop of Cold War-era America, the film tells the story of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute janitor working in a top-secret government laboratory located in Baltimore, Maryland, US. One day while she, along with her work-mate Zelda (Octavia Spencer), is cleaning the lab, a highly sensitive cargo is brought in the lab. Since both cannot see what is there inside a giant water filled tank, they are curious- Elisa, more so. The cargo is accompanied by a tough Colonel, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon).

During lunch time she goes into the lab and sees the cargo confined in a big glass cage. She discovers that the cargo is a humanoid amphibian (Dough Jones). Elisa is not scared of him and he too seems ok with her. She begins visiting the lab daily and gets boiled eggs for him which he eats. As he has assaulted Colonel Strickland and broken his two fingers, he is now chained and kept in an open tank. Slowly they develop a kind of strange friendship.

Elisa’s next door neighbor is Giles (Richard Jenkins), a middle aged advertising illustrator, out of job. Giles and Zelda are two of her only companions who can communicate to her using sign language. One day while Elisa is giving eggs to the amphibian secretly, General Hoyt (Nicholas Searcy), a high ranking army officer visits the facility. She hides in another section and overhears their conversation. The scientists are instructed to vivisect the creature- a dissection performed on live animals - to know about how he can be exploited against Russians. Another lab scientist Dr. Hoffstettler (Michael Stuhlbarg) resists vivisecting him saying he thinks the creature has intelligence akin to humans and they can learn much about him if he is alive. However, nobody listens to him. We learn later that Dr. Hoffstettler is actually Dimitri, a Russian spy and scientist who has plans to take the creature out of the hands of Americans.

Fearing that the amphibian will be killed, Elisa convinces Giles to help her abduct him. She is shown observant and sharp right since the beginning of the film. Elisa devises a plan which I leave it to viewers to see in the film. Elisa with help of Giles, Zelda and Dr. Hoffstettler abduct amphibian from the lab and take him home. Dr. Hoffstettler joins her because his Russian partners too want the amphibian to be killed before Americans perform vivisection so that they do not learn anything and he, as a scientist, wants him to be alive. Understandably, Colonel Strickland is livid and lost without any clue. He suspects Dr. Hoffstettler since he had resisted the vivisection.

The remaining part of the movie is delightful combination of a love story and a thriller where Elisa and the amphibian develop a very close bond and Colonel hunting for the creature in thriller mode as he is given 36 hours to find the creature by General Hoyt. The climax is beautifully visualized which again I leave it for viewers to experience it first-hand.

From the very beginning, 'The Shape of Water' immerses the audience in a world of stunning visuals and a hauntingly memorable score. The film's Production design and cinematography are nothing short of breathtaking, creating a visually stunning motion picture that perfectly complements the narrative. From the underwater sequences to the cold war era laboratory, to the cinema theatre during those years, each set is erected with perfection and finesse.

The heart of the film lies in the extraordinary performances of its cast, particularly Sally Hawkins in the lead role of Elisa. Despite her character's lack of dialogue, Hawkins delivers a captivating performance, conveying a wide range of emotions through her expressive eyes and subtle gestures. The scene where she convinces Giles to kidnap amphibian from the lab is enacted with such force and passion that you marvel at her skills despite the handicap of dialogue delivery. Her chemistry with Doug Jones, who portrays the mysterious amphibian creature, is palpable and adds depth to the unconventional love story at the core of the film. I also will give full marks the two fine actors, Michael Shannon and Richard Jenkins who shine in their roles- especially, Micheal Shannon, who as Colonel Strickland looks thoroughly menacing even without any dialogues, right since his introduction on screen. Octavia Spencer as Zelda, as usual is brilliant.

In addition to its captivating storytelling, 'The Shape of Water' is also a masterclass in sound design and musical composition. The film's score, composed by Alexandre Desplat, perfectly complements the visuals, enhancing the emotional impact of each scene. The use of silence throughout the film is equally powerful, allowing the audience to fully immerse themselves in the characters' experiences.

Through the character of Elisa, the film challenges the audience to question the boundaries that society places on love and acceptance. It highlights the importance of embracing diversity and finding beauty in the unconventional. 'The Shape of Water' is undeniably a unique and thought-provoking piece of cinema. It challenges the boundaries of traditional storytelling and invites the audience to dive into a world of fantasy and emotion. Guillermo del Toro's vision and attention to detail make this film a true work of art.

About the director, Guillermo del Toro

Born in October, 1964 in Guadalajara, Mexico, this prolific filmmaker works as a writer, producer, director and make-up artist with the filmmaking companies in Hollywood as well as in Mexico. Raised in a strict catholic family Guillermo got attracted towards filmmaking at a very young age. At the age of eight years he started making short films with his father’s Super 8 mm camera. After finishing school, he joined ‘Centro de Investigación y Estudios Cinematográficos’ at the University of Guadalajara to study filmmaking.

Later, Guillermo studied special effects and make-up under make-up artist Dick Smith (The Godfather, Taxi Driver, The Exorcist, etc.) and formed his own company ‘Necropia’ in 1985 along with Rigo Mora a Mexican writer, actor and director. Necropia got many assignments for films and TV series in Mexico. The last of Necropia assignments was the first feature film directed by Guillermo del Toro. He made his first feature in 1993 titled ‘Cronos’ an independently produced horror film. His fascination with monsters and creatures from folklore and mythology would later become a defining aspect of his cinematic style. Before his first full length feature film, he made number of short films and was supposed to make a stop-motion sci-fi movie as his debut film but burglars ransacked the studio and destroyed the set and puppets he and his crew had made for over three years.

In subsequent years Guillermo made many films which had comic book themes or fantasy adventures like ‘Blade II’ (2002), ‘Hellboy’ (2004), ‘Hellboy II: The Golden Army’ (2008), ‘Devil’s Backbone’ (2001) and ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ (2006). ‘Devil's Backbone’ and ‘Pan's Labyrinth’, both received widespread praise for their visually stunning cinematography and emotionally resonant storytelling. ‘Pan's Labyrinth’ in particular, won three Academy Awards and solidified del Toro's reputation as a master storyteller.

His present film, ’The Shape of Water’ was acclaimed by critics all around and received as many as thirteen nominations at Academy awards, winning four of them finally as listed above. This was the second fantasy film to win ‘Best Picture’ award after ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’ made in 2003. Guillermo shares special bond with two of his acclaimed Mexican filmmakers, Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Inarritu. The three filmmakers, referred to as ‘Three Amigos’ founded a production house ‘Cha Cha Cha Films’ and released their first Mexican film ‘Rudi y Cursi’, a sports comedy drama, in 2008.

Throughout his career, del Toro has demonstrated a remarkable ability to blend elements of fantasy and horror with themes of innocence, redemption, and the supernatural. His films often explore the darker aspects of human nature while also celebrating the power of imagination and the resilience of the human spirit.