In a post-#MeToo Hollywood, the talk of this year’s awards season is empowerment. With 7 Golden Globes nominations and thirteen Oscar nominations, The Shape of Water is a film about the power of giving voice to the voiceless.
In the midst of the threat of a Soviet attack in Cold War America looming overhead, in The Shape of Water, the military scrambles to find their own defenses. Meanwhile, Sally Hawkins, who plays the mute cleaning lady in a lab, finds a mirror of herself in an amphibious monster held captive by the military.
Hawkins’s run as the mute main protagonist is an absolute treat to watch. Her performance hearkens back to the silent age with clear notes taken from the likes of City Lights-era Charlie Chaplin. She dances across the screen with a love for music and an infectious sense of wonder about the world before her and before us, the audience.
Hawkins’s performance, as well as those by Octavia Spencer and Richard Smith, help to ground the film in a more recent political climate. As women, Spencer and Hawkins are relegated to the working class of custodial duties amongst self-important military men. At the same time, Smith struggles with being gay in a society disgusted by his homosexuality.
The film gives these characters ample opportunity to empower themselves against their adversity, but the plotline fails to provide a strong enough narrative backbone for these lovingly crafted characters to thrive in. The B-movie thrills provide an excellent backdrop for the romance at the heart of the film, but the further the film zooms out from this into more political thrills, the more one finds themselves missing the humanity that makes it so rich.
The Shape of Water is a return to form for director Guillermo del Toro. After a solid but out-of-character run at giant robot film Pacific Rim, and a very safe romance-horror in Crimson Peak, del Toro seems to have learned what worked well in those films and what made his previous films so great. DNA of those films and the excellent dark fairytale, Pan’s Labyrinth, run deep. And that is a very good thing.
The Shape of Water is just as amphibious as its monster main character in its balancing act of seemingly disparate genres, and is one of the most human movies of the year.