Even nearly 12 months after its initial UK release, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water has lost none of its magic. The film not only captured the hearts of critics, but also of cinemagoers worldwide, making it the highest-grossing Best Picture winner in the last five years – undoubtedly del Toro’s greatest success so far. There is definitely something special about the film: del Toro has created the perfect mix of fairytale, romance, and monster movie, retaining his arthouse appeal while also drawing in the general public. And in times of worldwide political uncertainty, this treat of masterful escapism is more than welcome.
The dreamy tone is set in the opening scene, where we meet the film’s protagonist Eliza (Sally Hawkins) peacefully drifting in an underwater world. Sounds are muffled and far away – there is nothing that disturbs her here, until she is torn from her slumber by the harsh sound of her alarm ringing. The film becomes to the viewer what this dream is to Eliza: transported into a completely different setting, we too find ourselves drifting, safe and sound inside the bubble of her story for two hours. Dipped in blue light, aquatic and mysterious, The Shape of Water cleverly plays with familiar fairytale elements. Part Beauty and the Beast, part Little Mermaid, del Toro offers comfort through traditional tropes, while also subverting them; he evokes Old Hollywood melodrama, and schlocky monster movies, and he pays homage to all these influences through both scenario and scenery – yet manages to create something truly original.
The story begins with a voiceover from a narrator who is later revealed to be Giles (Richard Jenkins), Eliza’s neighbour, friend, and accomplice: he introduces her as the heroine of the narrative, a princess without a voice. There is a monster, too, in this tale of love and loss. What we see when Eliza eventually wakes from her dreams, however, is hardly the life of a fairytale princess. In fact, it’s rather the opposite: she goes about her monotonous daily routine of cooking eggs and taking the bus to work, where she is part of a cleaning crew who sweeps through a secret government facility at night. Her existence is small and insignificant. Mute and orphaned, with only a small number of people to call her friends, Eliza exists in the margins of society.
It makes sense, then, that she is drawn to the mysterious aquatic creature (Doug Jones) who is brought to her place of work one day. They establish a tentative, non-verbal connection as Eliza quickly falls into a habit of sharing with him her boiled eggs and even the music she likes. In the creature, Eliza finds someone who exists on the outside of society, a position she herself knows all too well. One of the film’s most remarkable scenes shows Eliza expressing her emotions to Giles – himself trying to live as a gay man in 1960s America – in fervent sign language: “He does not know what I lack, or how I am incomplete. He sees me for what I am, as I am.”
To Eliza, the love they share is simple. Just like the creature, she does not focus on the differences between the two of them, but rather their similarities. She is willing to risk her life to save him from captivity, to be with him, and so she begs Giles to help her break him out of his prison. The creature isn’t the monster of this story: instead, the extremely human man (Michael Shannon) who tortures him is. In the end, the liberation is successful, but barely. There are obstacles, and shoot-outs in the pouring rain, there is death and heartbreak – but there is magic, too. Though Eliza is fatally hit by a bullet, the creature uses his powers to heal her, adapting her body to the world underwater, where they drift towards their well-deserved happy ending, safe and sound, and realising Eliza’s dream.
The film’s narrative is straightforward, but executed with a loving hand and an excellent cast. Hawkins gives the best performance of her career, filling out the cipher of Eliza beautifully. Though she has no voice to communicate with, one only has to look at her face to know what she thinks or feels. And like its protagonist, The Shape of Water is filled with love, down to the smallest details – particularly evident in the body of the creature, who is brought to life with relatively little CGI. Del Toro creates a fairytale without kitsch, a narrative for adults rather than children, full of depth and darkness. He doesn’t shy away from showing the ugly side of life, but shines his spotlight on marginalised characters: he makes heroines out of cleaning ladies and gives a voice to the voiceless, showing his audience that we can find beauty and love, regardless of the world around us.
N.B. As our site is UK based, we work off the selection of films released in cinemas in the UK in 2018.
So to recap, here’s our Top 20 to 2…
2nd – THE SHAPE OF WATER
Stay tuned for TOMORROW as we finally reveal our No. 1 of 2018!