Silent Love: A Review of “The Shape of Water”

The Shape of Water Drawing
Image Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures
By The Nerdling

Spoiler Free Review

Guillermo del Toro’s latest film has certainly sparked quite a bit of conversation since it’s debut at the Venice International Film Festival in 2017.  An unconventional love story is the easiest way to explain it.  Strange, visually breathtaking, heart-breaking, and inspiring are some other ways of describing a film that really can’t be labelled in one specific genre.  Thus, the beauty of a director like del Toro.

Set in the height of Cold War 60’s Baltimore, Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins) falls in love with an Amazonian humanoid-amphibian (Doug Jones).  The unnamed creature was caught by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon at peak Michael Shannon-ness) and brought to a military facility where Eliza works nights cleaning.  The creature is kept hostage by the military and brutally studied by a team of scientists lead by Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) in order to get a leg up on the Russians in the great Space Race.

Eliza and Gil-Man
Image Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Eliza, unable to speak after her vocal cords were cut out as a child, becomes enamored with the creature who also cannot communicate verbally.  The two secretly develop a bond thru use of sign language and music.  After learning the military has given the order to kill and dissect the being, Eliza pleas with her closeted-gay neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her cleaning partner and friend, Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) for help in freeing the creature.

Much of The Shape of Water is absent of conversation as the two leads are unable to speak.  The courtship between the two is very reminiscent of the Silent Movie era.  Hawkins shines in her ability to communicate volumes thru her expressions and body language.  Jones, who is no stranger to acting thru makeup and prosthetics, matches Hawkins emotionally powerful performance with just the use of body language.  He simultaneously makes the gill-man terrifying and approachable.  Spencer and Jenkins round out the misfit heroes perfectly.  In a time where people of color and homosexuals were silenced and treated as second-class citizens, it is fitting most of the dialogue goes to Spencer and Jenkins’s Giles and Zelda.

Giles & Eliza
Image Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

It was also refreshing to see qualities in our heroes which are normally, even now, are shamed.  Eliza is a sexual being.  Her “morning” routine has an allotted time for her to pleasure herself while her lunch cooks.  Empowering and practical.  Giles hops on what he misreads as an opportunity to go further with waiter he has a crush on.  The waiter quickly reveals himself to not only be homophobic, but also racist to Giles’s horror.  But the lonely artist never stops being who he is as a result.  Zelda consistently displays a wealth of bravery in situations where most black people in that era would have backed down.  Giles and Zelda never judge Eliza for her affections towards the creature or are scared of the gill-man’s otherness.

My only complaint about the film is the villain.  The typical upper-middle class, white male who quotes the bible, but greatly misunderstands it and has ruled the Earth for too damn long is a succinct villain for the current times, but it almost feels lazy.  Stacking the deck so we have no problems rooting for Eliza, Giles, Zelda, and the creature.  Strickland’s introduction couldn’t have been more cliché.  He waltzes into the restroom where Eliza and Zelda are cleaning and unabashedly pees before them.  And he just has to lecture the women on the kind of men who wash their hands before or after urinating.  A man who does both is a sure sign of weakness.  Shannon does a great job with a very one note character.  At times he can almost make Strickland sympathetic.  Mostly the character feels like we are being bashed over the head about the evils of this type of person.

Strickland, Eliza, & Zelda
Image Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

The film would have benefited more from making Stuhlbarg’s Hoffstetler the heavy.  His scientist with a secret would have made for a more compelling foil to Eliza and the gill-man.

While there is a lot to be said about this unconventional retelling of Beauty and the Beast, The Shape of Water also can be seen as a parable about how we treat our environment.  In the name of progress, we look to destroy something beautiful which cannot be replaced.  Those willing to save it are marginalized as lesser beings standing in the way of advancement for human-kind.

The Shape of Water is a haunting fairy tale for the modern age which would be a great movie for children as a lesson in acceptance and love, if it weren’t for the nudity, gore, and violence.  Overall, not a film for everyone, but that doesn’t make it any less of a work of art.

The Shape of Water is currently in theaters


The Nerdling was born in the majestic land known as Texas and currently resides there after several years of journeying through Middle Earth in a failed attempt to steal the one Ring from that annoying hobbit, serving the Galactic Empire for a time, and then a short stint as a crew member on the Serenity. Since moving back to her homeland, Nerdling flirted with a hero reputation. Saving children from the dangers of adoring domineering, sparkly vampires (champions with souls are the only vampires worth loving) and teaching normals the value of nerdom, all while rooting for her beloved Dallas Stars. Then came the Sokovia Accords and her short spell of saving others came to an end. With Darth Vader’s reputation rightfully returning to badass status, Nerdling is making her way back to the Empire. They do have cookies, you know. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram

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