The opening lines from the narrator of The Shape of Water makes no pretense at the story being a fairy tale. The movie starts with talk of princesses and monsters, but then throws the audience into an early 1960s surreal world where a mute woman meets an extraordinary creature while mopping floors in a top secret research lab.
This poignantly beautiful love story features Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito, a plain-looking, mute woman living a lonely, desolate life with only two friends, her co-worker Zelda Fuller (a motherly Octavia Spencer) and her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins). Each in their own way are outcasts from society and symbols of the larger world. Zelda represents racial tension in the white man’s world, while Giles is the ostracized artist due to his homosexuality.
While working at the research center, Eliza and Zelda meet Richard Strickland (a menacing Michael Shannon), the security agent who initially captured the creature in the Amazon. He lectures them with high-handed Christian values while wielding a bloody cattle prod. In an early encounter with the creature in the lab he has two fingers bitten off. They are reattached offscreen and, throughout the rest of the film, we see the fingers begin to rot and turn black. This drives the villain mad with pain and septicemia, but the changing skin color also symbolizes the moral decay of his soul.
Symbology is rife throughout The Shape of Water. For example, at one point in the movie Giles and Elisa visit the Dixie Pie diner because Giles is taken with the sales clerk. This man switches on the honey-sounding southern accent for his customers, and provides friendship and empathy towards Giles. Unfortunately, his accent, like the homemade pies claim, are fake, showing the audience that many things in this movie are not what they seem. In addition, the pies taste terrible, indicating that the world beyond Elisa’s and Gile’s apartments is a terribly harsh place. This point is driven home later, when the same sales clerk drops the accent, rejects Giles, and yells at a black couple for daring to enter the store.
Even the sex scenes have deeper meaning. The hints at Elisa’s masturbation gives some depth to her loneliness, just as the love of all the old musicals implies a strong romantic nature. In contrast, Strickland’s dislike of his family and his sterile, nearly rape-like coupling with his wife further defines his cold nature. It also serves as a counterpoint to Elisa and the creature’s implied tender lovemaking.
The water creature is beautiful in its own way and features the same bioluminescence that shows up in deep water fish. However, the actor’s ability to display emotions was limited by the costume and makeup. He clearly displays anger, pain, and curiosity but any other mild emotions are missing. The ending scene of his escape, again a bit fairy tale like, is a little hokey and predictable but still works because audiences want a happy resolution.
The Shape of Water has already garnered two Golden Globes and is up for 13 well deserved Oscars. Although this movie doesn’t need the big screen to delight, it certainly is well worth the price of admission and a popcorn treat. I highly recommend checking out The Shape of Water for something different this Valentine weekend, particularly if you’re sick of the usual offerings romance movies.