Illustration by Elena Griedel
The past five years have been some of the most disappointing for the film industry. They’ve been largely dominated by mediocre reboots and blockbuster franchises, but still some original movies shine through. The Shape of Water, by famed horror director Guillermo del Toro, is a prime example of an amazing and unique movie. It is a romantic drama about a mute woman who falls in love with a fish man at a government facility in Cold War era Baltimore. Del Toro, who is most well known for movies such as Pan’s Labyrinth and the Hellboy series, took an interesting departure in making a romance movie, but it definitely paid off. The Shape of Water is simply incredible, and Del Toro’s directing and writing was some of the best of the year.
The plot seemed to just flow, no scene felt like a leap from the next. It was ever evolving and progressed naturally. It succeeded in quickly building a world that felt real while still having fantastical elements. Some major impacts on the impeccably created world were the sets, costumes, and soundtrack.
One of the most important set design choices in this film was the use of watery green to bring continuity to the scenes. The frequent use of the color, from the soap in the bathroom, to the coloration of the fish man, made the world feel connected. Because of this, no scene felt out of place, further helping the plot to flow smoothly.
Another contributing factor was the Golden Globe winning soundtrack. The instrumental pieces fit into the background to set the mood perfectly and often utilized instruments that either sounded like water or like music playing at an old record store in France. The pieces with lyrics also contributed to the old-school French vibe, but added a hint of a black and white romantic musical feeling. It was incredible how much a soundtrack could influence the scenes.
Even with all the world building, this movie would not be nearly as incredible without the dialogue and acting. The script work was incredible; every character felt real. Each action and line of dialogue had intention and furthered the plot while also digging into motivations of what makes a person human.
This effect of getting into the heads of the character was furthered by the downright beautiful performances from the entire cast. While everybody was great, the standout was of course Sally Hawkins who played the main character, Elisa, a mute janitor working at a government facility. Her character was so alive even without speaking.
Her movements and facial expressions alone conveyed more emotion than many of the roles in Hollywood today. All of Hawkins’ dialogue was in sign language, and the way she changed the way she signed based on her feelings was incredible to watch. Through her performance she made Elisa feel relatable without having many characteristics that I could personally relate to.
The supporting cast also furthered the feeling that this movie really could have taken place. Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer, who played Elisa’s friends, were both multi-dimensional characters. Jenkins added a sense of comedy while furthering the theme of wanting to be loved for who you are. His character was funny, but still had actual human anxieties and hopes.
Michael Shannon, who played the main villain of the movie, was also incredibly compelling. He was actually terrifying. Even when some of his dialogue was heavy handed and clichéd, Shannon brought an energy that saved it from bogging down the rest of the film.
Doug Jones, who was in a big fishman costume the whole time, managed to feel incredibly human. Through his body movements he mixed the characteristics of an animal and typical male romantic lead. Even some of the more minor characters, like Shannon’s assistant, who had very little screen time, felt true to life.
The topic of this film was definitely fantastical, but it somehow managed to be one of the most real movies of the year. A romantic movie with the male lead being a fish person sounds strange, but it managed to work incredibly well. There was so much going for this film, even the small plot holes didn’t diminish its quality.
This movie encapsulates the magic of cinema and what a movie can be. Fans of the romantic genre might like a twist, and people who enjoy monster movies might also enjoy del Toro’s take.