When a film becomes an award season juggernaut in the way that The Shape of Water did, racking up 87 wins from 243 nominations at a variety of ceremonies, the front-runner sweeping home on the way to Oscar wins that included Best Picture and Best Director, it’s becomes enveloped forever into that context, forever on a pedestal, conversations around it forever centered on which wins it did or didn’t deserve, if it being the most successful film from those who created it makes it the best one, and whether or not its that most useless word in film criticism, “overrated”. Discussing the merits of The Shape of Water is even more difficult than most examples of those discourse victims, as it’s not only the Homecoming King of 2017/2018 Awards Season, it’s also forever the Fish Fucking Movie.
Separating it from that former context (we’ll get to the latter) it has to be remembered what a little miracle The Shape of Water is. Guillermo Del Toro had previously always been Hollywood’s Nearly Man director, the guy who excitedly talks about projects that will never get made or will get made by someone else, the guy who starts franchises but doesn’t finish them, who doesn’t make quite enough money, the director people will vouch for but not die for, a director who’s English-language films usually have an if-and-but attached to their love or success and whose Spanish-language and more bulletproof films are slipping further and further into the past. Coming off of the exceptional but unsuccessful Crimson Peak, a film put together very much in the GDT sandbox, the expectation might be that the director would get a few years in Movie Jail, not quite as trusted in his next outing. If that was the case, it certainly didn’t hold The Shape of Water back at all, del Toro’s lowest budget for a Hollywood film still allowed him to throw every last drop of his artistic outlook on screen, finally fully unleashed, the result a gorgeously designed, haunting and heartwarming, a fairytale where the monsters and the marginalised can escape from cruel reality and find freedom through love.
Amazingly, the thing that on surface level might have been most alienating to audiences (The Fish Man Fucks) was a big part of the film finding its audience. Very meme-able for the Extremely Online, its an idea that’s gross and odd carried through with a ton of heart and no shame, but for the more middlebrow viewer (ie most award voters, your parents etc) the idea is sold softly through old Hollywood presentation and the grounding presence of actors of distinction and dignity. Spencer, Shannon, Stuhlbarg and Jenkins are all fantastic in the film, archetypes all filled with a sense of reality, even the cartoonish villain that Michael Shannon could play in his sleep is given a little drop of the Eleanor Rigby sadness that everyone else has. Doug Jones as the amphibian man plays his most high-profile role in a long career with remarkable grace and physicality, but Sally Hawkins is unquestionably the standout, the performance on whom the films entire earnest sensibility rests, carrying the film through from beginning to end with empathy, joy, comedic timing, sensuality, urgency and even dancing skill.
Del Toro has spoken about the importance of eyes in acting ahead of line delivery, and that’s realised very literally through the mute cleaner Elisa, so often used to being either looked over and down on, keeping her own eyes held low, until they meet the gaze of a most improbable man of her dreams. Nobody thinks that much of the creature either, but through Hawkins open and expressive eyes we see her come to understand his intelligence, his emotional depth, his strength, and even his sexuality, and through being open to seeing these things in a monster, Elisa grows to understand the absurdity that she could never see any of it in herself. Meekness is replaced by steel as she sets about to free the creature from the government facility holding him captive, her own place of work. What seems like and work as a very straightforward story reveals its beautiful depths, through the acting, through the directing, through the design the audiences irony or skepticism is stripped away as they are shown how what seems safe and stable is violent and oppressive at heart, that the asterisked ‘acceptance’ of others is trite because when you love yourself you’re unstoppable. You’re not loving “even a monster” if it doesn’t see itself as a monster, GDT has conviction in his vision even when its been withheld by studios or financiers or even audiences and Elisa is more then even those who liked her, even herself could ever have imagined. She’s the centre of a fairytale, the beloved princess and the daring knight both, with a fire burning in her that even the coldest waters can’t extinguish. The shape of water, clear and vital, shifts greatly depending on its perspective and its container. The Shape of Water, the monster loved, the joke told earnestly, the Nearly Man Arrived, is much the same.
Go back through our previous entries for the best of 2018 below: