Is the world ready for the Academy Award for Best Picture to be awarded to a film about a woman falling in love with a fish? (update: yes). I hope so. Very rarely does a film come along with a premise so bizarre that is loved by such contrasting demographics as me and my mother. Who knew we would both love to see a mute woman named Eliza (Sally Hawkins) slowly falling in love with a captured, feral sea creature named Amphibian Man (Doug Jones). For bringing together, my mum, lover of Sherlock Holmes in New York procedural, Elementary and me, lover of no Sherlock Holmes adaptations, the film deserves all the awards.
Eliza lives above a failing cinema (because of course), and spends her day doing the same things over and over again. She brushes her teeth, masturbates in the bath, goes to work, listens to her friend and colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and goes back home again. Occasionally she visits her gay closeted neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), but that is as exciting as her life gets. It is clear that Zelda is alone, but this has been her life ever since she was found as a child by the river with wounds on her neck. Her life is monotonous, but it is the only life she knows.
Eliza’s life becomes more interesting when Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) begins working at the military medical centre she cleans at. Richard is in charge of their new asset, a fish/man hybrid, who we are told was “a god” to a community in South America. Richard is sadistic, and one day whilst he is torturing Amphibian Man, the Amphibian bites back, taking one of Richard’s fingers clean off. Eliza and Zelda are ordered to clean the room where Amphibian Man is held captive, allowing Eliza to get her first sight of him. There isn’t an instant connection, but Eliza is intrigued. In the following days she sneaks back into the room during lunch and feeds Amphibian Man an egg. At first, he is suspicious but soon waits eagerly for her. A friendship between the two forms, and this pattern continues until Eliza, after having spent too long in the room has to hide as Richard and his team enter the room. She witnesses Richard torture Amphibian Man, and with his body weakening, Eliza knows she doesn’t have long to help him get out. With the help of conflicted scientist, Dr Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) she hatches a plan to help Amphibian Man escape, and get him back in the river where he belongs.
Michael Shannon is the perfect villain for the film’s tone, adding another creepy and intense performance to his resume. Michael Stulhbarg does his usual thing by turning up in a pivotal role injecting his portrayal of a conflicted Soviet Spy with humanity and urgency. But despite the brilliance of these two actors, Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones and Richard Jenkins steal the show with a triage of perfectly pitched performances. Hawkins, proven to be so diverse in the past, brings life to a role that could have failed to engage in another actor’s hands, connecting with Doug Jones’ Amphibian Man, making their outlandish relationship feel natural. Jones, with the help of cgi confidently conveys the animal and human side to Amphibian Man, making us fear and relate to him in equal measure. However, Jenkins is so loveable and pitiful as the closeted, unemployed art director, lusting after the bigoted waiter and attempting to get his career back on track. In a film bursting full of acting talent, Jenkin’s stands out, adding cultural nuance to an often fantastical film.
Del Toro’s film is clearly a celebration of outsiders. In a time of political division, this is the sort of celebration we need to see. For creativity alone, The Shape of Water is a nuanced, engaging, fantastical film celebrating outsiders and love that crosses boundaries. If that isn’t what we strive for in 2018, then I don’t know what is.