London Film Festival: The Shape of Water

Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water.

Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water.

Sometimes, a bit of fantasy is just what you need. When it is brought to you by the visionary Guillermo del Toro, the after feeling is delicious.

What truly stayed with me in The Shape of Water is that whatever you teach young people will shape what they become and how they treat the world around them. Fear engenders fear, and love engenders love.

We are propelled into the fairy tale of Eliza (Sally Hawkins), a cleaner in an underground Baltimore scientific research facility in the 1960s. While she can hear people, she cannot speak. We guess the scars on her neck are the origin of her disability. She lives by herself and her only friends are her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), who used to be an advertising illustrator but lost his job due to photographers taking over the industry, and her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), with whom she communicates in sign language.

One day, Eliza’s power-driven and abusing boss Strickland (Michael Shannon) has his fingers bitten off by an otherworldly creature that is being held in captivity in a water tank, and Eliza and Zelda are asked to clean up the mess. This is when our hero and the magical water creature meet. Day after day, she visits him secretly, brings him eggs to eat and music to listen to and a quiet romantic relationship ensues. When the laboratory decides to kill the creature for fear it will be stolen by the Soviets, Eliza has no choice but to fight to save it.

This film is very stylised, with many shades of blue and green influencing the design and the story, but the emotions are ever so real. We briefly learn that the orphan Eliza was found near a river as a child, and notice that she has a particular love for bathing and even moves and dances with fluidity and grace at all times. The connection Eliza feels to her new friend comes from her inability to truly connect with anyone else due to her handicap. She finds she has to defend herself every day against the outside world, so when she meets someone to whom her condition doesn’t matter, she finds new growth and freedom. Despite her innocent-looking face, she is in no way a victim, fighting off advances from Strickland and embracing her sexuality. Her voice is replaced with her honesty, and it is this goodness that inspires her friends to actually listen to her and fight with her.

Hawkins is marvellous in her role, her face and especially her eyes expressing everything her mouth cannot, and del Toro emphasises this by placing subtitles for the sign language right by her face instead of at the bottom of the screen. The whole way through, we are emotionally with this character that has a bit of Amélie Poulain in her.

Shannon is disgustingly good as the vicious, racist, narrow-minded 60s male who uses his power to try to intimidate women and who will stop at nothing, even shooting innocent people, to rise to the top. What slightly breaks our heart is that he is medicated and so blind that he is unable to understand any kind of affection.

If one is violent with the person who just wishes to connect, they will be violent too. Del Toro certainly shows us that if our environment is peaceful, we will want to recreate that peace. It may sound soft, but it’s true: spread goodness and you will receive it back. Too many fail to understand that.  

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