Written By: Nigel Asipa
In an article from Patricia Donavan for Ub Reporter, monsters represent the potential ugliness and fiendishness inside us all. They teach us to be more responsible with our desires, and by recognising the common traits and behaviour of the likes of vampires and witches, we, in turn, can discover if we aren’t that far off from them.
Remembering Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, I was entranced by his bold but affectionate take of providing escapism for both the audience as well as it’s brave young protagonist. All from a world that still has a lot to figure about its potential for compassion and weary insight. It was shockingly violent at times but heartbreaking and visually alluring that I’m a little ashamed I haven’t seen Del Toro’s bigger, rousing ventures.
That’ll change after witnessing one of the most affecting and audacious romances I’ve perhaps ever seen. More grounded in reality than Labyrinth but no less dazzling in it’s surreal, moving sentiment. Working with a fantastic ensemble cast, impeccable production design and a harmonious, sublime score from Alexandre Desplat, The Shape Of Water is shaping up to be one of my favourites of the year.
We’re taken to Baltimore, 1962. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a maid who works the night shift at the Occam Aerospace Research Center; a top-level government facility that has recently captured an amphibian-human hybrid that was taken from the Amazon to be studied, tortured and soon to be killed. Elisa doesn’t bother anyone and dazes off into her own little world at times, but when she locks eyes on the creature (or ‘The Asset’ as its called), she’s completely mesmerised.
Her only friends seem to be the sassy but supportive Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) who also works as a night shift maid at the facility and Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay ad designer who’s Elisa’s neighbour. Whenever the opportunity arises, she visits the creature to form a connection of sorts. She feeds him eggs, plays him music and even teaches it sign language.
The miserable and downright sadistic Colonel Richard Strickland, or as I like to call him ‘Strictland’ (Michael Shannon) has a serious vendetta against the beast as it nicked two of Strickland’s fingers. He’ll swing by to taunt and torture the beast with a cattle prod with cold disdain. Michael Stuhlberg’s Robert Hoffstetler is a compassionate scientist who sees more in the creature than merely using it to one-up the Americans for his Soviet superiors and weighs out his loyalties decidedly.
When Elisa learns the creature’s body will soon be harvested for space travel technology, the race is on. She desperately tries to convince her allies to help her rescue the beast from the horrific fate that awaits it.
We get all different kinds of green here; teal, pine, jungle amongst many others. Green is said to represent vitality and harmony which in The Shape Of Water’s case is symbolic of potential and tranquillity. Having these sensibilities within the Cold War era has Del Toro’s gardening the film with rich, poetic idealism. There are moments of shocking brutality, peculiar romance and winning charm that the intricacy of its visuals somehow keeps the movie from venturing into silly, fluffy clumsiness.
As weird as its heart can be at times, the narrative goes in places you mostly would expect, knowingly so even and what keeps it fresh more often is Del Toro’s dignifying practicality with his story. He’s aware of how bizarre the dynamic is between the creature and Elisa, but the communication between the two is cute, heartbreaking and dreamy enough to win over the audience’s sympathies.
Sally Hawkins’ work here is a thing of beauty; her Elisa is quirky, brave and utterly dreamy. It’s a brilliantly moving performance that gives our hero baby like curiosity and such warmth. Her character may be a mute, but she’s far from silent. Jenkins is particularly endearing as the consolable comic relief who panics and hesitates to show us someone who’s terrified of being alone – after all, we’re all just relics waiting to be discovered by a certain treasurer. And then there’s Spencer, who’s garnered her third Oscar nomination in the Supporting Actress category, all of which are prickly, but graceful women from the 60’s. Even still she’s delightfully feisty.
What can quickly be overlooked is the remarkable physicality Doug Jones gives the creature; the majesty and vulnerability are spellbinding, complimented with brilliant makeup and costume design. Shannon, however, is the real monster here, playing up the maddening stare and towering stature of his Strickland with maniacal villainy.