Oscar Watch: The Shape of Water
Views 45 | Time to read: 3 minutes | Uploaded: 2 - 27 - 2018 | By: Olivia Stowell
As Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water opens, the camera turns upon a woman, asleep, suspended in water, as everyday household objects float around her. Her gentle serenity in slumber recalls Sleeping Beauty, and the voiceover narration speaks of “a princess without a voice,” cementing the film to come as something of a fairy tale, albeit one complete with everything from an anthropomorphic fish-man to Cold War Russian spies to fantasy musical dance numbers to blood, gore, and the racism, sexism, and homophobia of the 1960s. In short, this is no easy movie to describe or categorize.
The woman, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), is a mute, sign-language speaking janitor at a high security government facility, one that obtains a mysterious creature called “the asset,” with whom Elisa develops a friendship and romance. As her primary onscreen counterpart is a fish-man-monster, Hawkins has a tremendous acting burden on her shoulders, but her expressive eyes and emotional signing convey a complex inner life without her speaking a single word, and we believe Elisa as both a creature of habit who lives out her routine of waking up, hard-boiling eggs, masturbating in the bathtub, and taking the bus to work, as well as someone willing to defy government officers for someone they care about.
Additionally, though she is played by a non-mute, non-signing actress, Elisa stands out as a unique depiction of a differently abled person in film. Often in cinema, differently abled people are infantilized, viewed as burdens, or presented without much of an inner life. By contrast, Elisa has agency, sexuality, intelligence, friendships (with both her gay artist neighbor (Richard Jenkins) and her Black coworker (Octavia Spencer)), and a sense of humor.
The film’s strong supporting cast, which also includes Michael Shannon as an almost cartoonishly nefarious beacon of prototypical white male privilege and abused power, add humor and warmth (in the case of the Oscar-nominated Jenkins and Spencer) as well as suspense and danger (in the case of Shannon) to the narrative. Though Jenkins’s character gets an arc of his own regarding both his career and his sexuality, unfortunately Spencer’s character does not get quite the same treatment. Often, Spencer’s Zelda seems to exist mainly to help Elisa or to push her storyline forward. Though Spencer’s performance is full of warmth and humor, the script doesn’t afford her character the same depth and complexity that Hawkins and Jenkins get.
Though The Shape of Water is something of a fairy tale, and Elisa functions as the protagonist/princess (even buying a pair of ruby-colored slippers about halfway through the film), it also contains elements more similar to monster, horror, romance, and heist films. Del Toro’s confident direction uniquely brings together all of these disparate elements, creating beautifully composed cinematic images out of everything from rain running along bus windows to laboratory locker rooms.
Every frame of the film reveals The Shape of Water as a passion project, one where, as del Toro said in his Golden Globe acceptance speech, monsters “are patron saints of our blissful imperfection,” and though the central premise may give some moviegoers pause, the sharp dialogue, strong performances, and lovely cinematography and direction of this genre-bending film cohere its unconventional story into something both tender and moving.