The Shape of Water is this year’s best picture winner and so I was keen to see what all the hype was about. Written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water is the story of Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a cleaner in a secret research laboratory during the Cold War. One day a very special asset arrives at the lab, along with new security man Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), and Elisa finds herself bonding with this amphibian man (Doug Jones), with whom she appears to have a special connection.
When I think about films that seem primed to win Oscars, The Shape of Water is not really one that I would expect to win. It is aesthetically beautiful, with Dan Lausten’s cinematography really lifting the scenes. It is also a film that is fairly weird, this is a film with a love story between a woman and a merman at its heart after all. That being said, it is also a film about outsiders. Elisa is a mute who only communicates through sign language, who lives next door to Giles (Richard Jenkins) who is gay and whose only friend at work is Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a black woman. They come up against the wrath of the all-American Strickland, an exemplar of everything that is wrong with seeing the world in a very narrow way. At a time where the other is instantly distrusted, The Shape of Water is a dark, fairy-tale-esque exploration of the possible extreme results from this.
The Cold War setting plays on the edges of this film, with Michael Stuhlbarg playing a Russian spy, who ultimately becomes too attached to the science behind the merman as opposed to its possible use as an asset for the Soviet project. I’m a bit obsessed with the Cold War so this was only a good thing for me, and I felt that it was well-integrated into the main plot. I also liked the fact that the Russians actually spoke Russian, rather than English with a bizarre accent.
Sally Hawkins is the stand-out performance in this film. As her character cannot speak, Hawkins has to portray all of her characters feelings through her face and body language and she is just perfect at doing that. She is shy and passionate and cheeky all at once. As her opposite, Michael Shannon is just awfully good as Richard Strickland, who is the perfect bad guy in this gothic fairy tale. My other favourite performance has to be that of Richard Jenkins as Elisa’s neighbour Giles. His desperation to find acceptance, his love of old Hollywood musicals and of Elisa herself is just beautifully portrayed, and I’m glad to see that he received award nominations this year. I do just wish that Spencer had had more to do than play Elisa’s kind of sassy black friend.