Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a cinematically gorgeous film with a clever and creative script from the director and Vanessa Taylor. Sally Hawkins excels as the protagonist, a mute cleaner at a high-security government base who befriends a reptilian creature held captive. The fantasy thriller explores relationships, humanity and the power of body language.
The opening – a beautiful panning shot through a home submerged in water – forecasts what’s to come, establishing the tone of a noir fairytale. The blue and green colours here seep into the rest of the film, the colouring of the sea pushing this watery imagery throughout.
Having the main character as mute makes for engaging script writing that is rarely lazy: dialogue often makes it easy to just say rather than show what you want to convey. But without Sally Hawkins’ character talking, and only using sign language occasionally, the film makes a great effort in getting the audience to really know her through action, repetition, colouring, visuals and creative uses of non-vocal sounds. The first act is purely spent understanding character and situation; when the conflict arises, you feel her pain, conviction and frustration. Thus the action feels earned and heroic yet challenging, rather than a predictable step in the story.
One of the film’s highlights is its antagonist, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Shannon is incredible at being superficially restrained, evil, and frightening to the viewer, without being one-dimensional. The insight into his past and home life depict him as equally unnerving and understandable. He also has one of the most unsettling but powerful scenes in the film: the grotesque imagery of his decaying fingers conveying the loss of his grip.
All the supporting characters feel complex, with well thought out backgrounds and individual challenges even if not fully explored in the film. The story surrounding her neighbour, Giles (Richard Jenkins), feels so real and sad. He is just one example of how the smallest details are completely thought out, so much so that on each moment of reflection, the viewer finds a new thematic message or symbol. The Shape of Water is an enchanting and melancholic film that raises some interesting questions.