The Shape of Water Review: Spellbinding Ode to Impossible Love

Guillermo Del Toro sees people. And monsters.

He dives inside souls and seeks out beauty from the grotesque like rare pearls that’d be little more than mothballs to the unfeeling eye.

It’s probably what sparked his desire to see a romantic union between the tragic aquatic beast in the Creature From the Black Lagoon and Julie Adams.

‘You wouldn’t understand. You couldn’t understand. Not if you tried your whole life,’ bemoans an exasperated voice at a character incapable of such sensitivity. Fortunately, his inadequacy doesn’t come in the way of savouring The Shape of Water, Del Toro’s spellbinding ode to impossible love.

A poetic darkness and undisguised exuberance paints almost all his stories, but the sublime sentimentality of his latest, nominated for a whopping 13 Oscars, is the most evolved his film-making has ever felt.

Beginning with Alexandre Desplat’s haunting melody, evoking the enchantment of the Pan’s Labyrinth lullaby, and a voiceover serving as a foreword, a technique rather favoured by Del Toro, the sight of water fills its every frame and not just the title.

Water is to this film what ice is to Edward Scissorhands, Tim Burton’s romantic fantasy that frequently comes to mind as its potential for impracticality grows.

From eggs boiling in a pot and a splashing bathtub to the daily thoughts of her calendar (‘Time is but a river flowing from our past’) and the manner in which Eliza (Sally Hawkins, you’ll be the one speechless after witnessing her perfection) was first discovered, water seems to write out her destiny and encounter with an amphibian man (Doug Jones, wearing latex like second skin) at the research facility she works for as a cleaner.

Eliza bears sharp scars on her neck and does not speak.

There’s a spirit in her silence that communicates she may be lonely but not without support.

The latter comes to her in the friendship of an ageing gay neighbour (Richard Jenkins juggles failure and friendliness with seasoned ease) and sharp-witted black co-worker (Octavia Spencer at her humorous best).

Deliberate in its politics, The Shape of the Water makes a valid case for pertinent issues by weaving the degree of discrimination in America’s Cold War-afflicted ambience reeking of white supremacy and disregard.

This is as much a fairy tale as it is about the eternal subjugation of marginalised outcastes at the hands of bigoted authority.

The year is 1962. The location is Baltimore.

With the arrival of a mysterious merman in the military lab, Eliza’s daily routine finds a welcome distraction in his enormous appetite, scaly texture and aquamarine eyes.

Del Toro revives and upgrades the creature from Black Lagoon and acknowledges his South American origins before gifting him a consummate romance and thereby fulfilling his childhood fantasy.

On first glance, the creature is fierce to behold. But there’s something gentle, almost human, about his lips and ballooned gaze that makes Eliza’s attraction not just fathomable but oddly sensual too.

The intensity of their passion is confirmed every time his skin breaks into an iridescent glow revealing the peak of his peace and her joy.

Romantic to the core and a master of visuals, Del Toro immortalises their togetherness with gushing sentimentality inside an empty movie theatre celebrating two of his biggest loves — cinema and monsters.

The Shape of Water is full of marvellous details and poignant insights about the human condition and its curiosity for ‘intricate beautiful things’, one that is actively threatened by Eliza’s racist boss, who in Michael Shannon’s sophisticated savagery, achieves frightening authenticity.

As the real revolting figure of the plot, obsessed with keeping his scrupulous record of getting the job done as intently as The Shape of Water is with the colour green, Shannon keeps the action taut and tense with his volatility.

Although his condescending attitude towards his subordinates borderlines on overkill, it works on account of his innate haughtiness.

Another fascinating character in the tale is Michael Stuhlbarg’s sympathetic scientist caught between his patriotism and profession. His hawk-like eye on Eliza’s activities and polite feud with Shannon lead to the movie’s most thrilling bit — the creature’s freedom.

Even if the intelligibility of his rescue is almost miraculous in its estimates, it’s one you pray for so, SO ardently, like you once did for ET.

Del Toro hits a cinematic nerve in capturing an enduring love for the oddball, the beauty in the bizarre and, most importantly, reminding what it’s like to have what one wished for since a kid — a happy ending.

Rating: 4/5

This review was first published on rediff.com.

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