With awards season upon us, the cinemas are now stocked with Oscar-bait, real life dramas portraying the pains and struggles of existence. Which begs the question of how a sci-fi romance, from the director of Pacific Rim, gained the highest number of BAFTA and OSCAR nominations this year.
The Shape of Water is set at the height of the cold war, where a USA government institution has gotten hold of a highly valued asset in the shape of an amphibian creature. Despite the torture and questioning, the creature doesn’t provide any help to the scientists, until it meets the mute cleaner, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), and develops a bond that refuses to be broken. Allied with her friends in the form of Octavia Spencer’s “Zelda” and Richard Jenkins “Giles”, they attempt to escape the government, led by the captivating Michael Shannon, and give the creature a life it deserves. Grounded in realism, Guillermo del Toro’s directorial vision of this time is beautiful, showing the distinct contrasts of colourful suburbia and the dull greys of cold war government work.
Despite appearances, The Shape of Water is not solely a romance, it is also a statement on Western culture for then and now. This is especially shown through side stories involving Michael Shannon’s Strickland and his quest for the American dream, as well as Richard Jenkins’ search for love and success. Del Toro’s story is expertly woven, meaning every main character has something missing in life, which can be solved via the creature. As a result, the viewer is never lost on character motivations, even if they are being terrified of Shannon’s under-rated performance, or enjoying the jokes that Elisa and Zelda’s friendship brings. Furthermore, being set in the cold war, tensions are always high, meaning the edge of seats will be sat on and breaths will be held as the Soviets, Americans and Elisa play a three-way-tug-of-war for the creature.
Although, whilst the first two acts are very strong, the third act and especially the ending, for me, does not achieve the same level of quality as what had been shown previously. The film ends up relying a bit too much on convenience and ambiguity on the creature, meaning that some may leave with more questions on the film than anticipated. However, The Shape of Water still portrays a heartfelt, moving story of love, which says a lot considering the object of affection could easily kill any human or animal it lays eyes on, especially when hungry.
At first glance, this film looked to be recreating a tale as old as time, which it does, however with the added complexities of a social commentary and a cold war setting, it becomes a modern, original and welcome depiction of beauty and the beast. With the grace and strength of a great white shark, The Shape of Water has swum up to become one of the most highly acclaimed films of the year, whether it can fend off competitors and catch the bait is another matter, but one thing is for sure, it definitely deserves it.
Image credit: Gage Skidmore via Flickr