The Shape of Water review

Despite its magical realism, the strangest parts of “The Shape of Water” revolve around the Normal Rockwell painting that Michael Shannon’s villain, Richard Strickland, inhabits. Strickland is notably cut in a black suit, white shirt, and black tie. A stark contrast to the over-saturated blues, greens, reds and yellows that make up the films striking pallet.  Whilst Sally Hawkins deals with her alien feelings for the creature referred to only as “The Asset” (Doug Jones), Strickland navigates his way through a cartoonishly “idealised” American life, circa 1960. He lives in Norman Rockwell’s America, and anything outside of that is an affront to him. Despite this, he seems to despise his own existence within these boundaries. The alien world he hates draws him in, gives him an outlet for his rage. An absurd encounter with a car salesman centres around a pointless argument – green or teal? The salesman, clad not quite head to toe in teal sports sharply contrasting black and white spats, positioning himself half way between Strickland, in harshly cut black and white throughout, and Sally Hawkins’ Eliza, herself in a strict uniform, but a loose, flowing turquoise dress. The interaction between Strickland and the car salesman is brief, shot through with hostility, and ultimately ends with Strickland capitulating. Strickland is a villain through and through, almost, perhaps, in a heavy handed way, he is certainly a caricature, but a compelling one, one who is raging against anything he finds different, despite despising the world he lives in.

Yearning plays a vital role throughout the film. Giles (Richard Jenkins) is Eliza’s only real confidant, an aging gay man in a time that refuses to accept him. His love of classic movies, his job as an illustrator, and his fawning over the server at a classical style diner all betray his adoration for an age that has slipped by, despite that age’s absolute rejection of him. Eliza, of course, yearns for The Asset, to be able to express herself, and for those around her to understand the few ways she can express herself in any way beyond basic instruction, and Eliza’s co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) seems to yearn for yearning itself, a longing, much like all the characters, to escape her current situation, a job that demeans her, a husband who does not react to her. Through this, we see a calm rarely seen in Del Toro’s work, which can often be overactive, and manic, and although scenes of action are shot throughout, this is certainly a slower pace than we’ve seen from his recent work.

The hallmarks of Del Toro are present throughout, however. The enormous literacy he has for film and folklore runs deep. Classic films are played throughout, as are the notes of a musical, the conflicts of a cold war spy drama (through the excellent Michael Stuhlbarg’s Dr. Hoffstetler), and of course, The Asset is ripped straight from The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The romance is pure fairy tale, and a passing glimpse of an advert for “Pearlman’s” serves as a subtle nod to Hellboy actor Ron Perlman, and the franchise that had previously offered Del Toro the familiarly piscine Abe Sapien (also played by Doug Jones). Even hints of the tragically cancelled Bioshock project can be found, particularly through the setting and set dressing, and this film presents a strong argument for a 14th Oscar nomination, should location scouts ever be offered an Oscar of their own.

The fairytale romance here is tender, and warm. It deftly swerves clumsy fetishisation, which could’ve easily undermined the seriousness of the entire film. The erotic symbolism of water is omnipresent, and as much as the film embraces colour, it also embraces texture, both contrasting and complementing the sets and world around the characters. So confident the film is in this that it pulls away from traditional folkloric symbols of the erotic otherness, the furs and warm colours of fawns are replaced with the blues, greens and scales of The Asset. The nature of this alien romance places the film firmly within imagery of the Other, and the films cast of outsiders, culminating in a literally voiceless woman cement the imagery into place, particularly as she finds her deepest expression in embracing the Other, and what an expression it is.

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