‘The Shape Of Water’: Fascinating study of indefinable love

By Subhash K. Jha

Film: “The Shape Of Water”; Director: Guillermo del Toro; Cast: Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon and Octavia Spencer; Rating: *** ½

It’s a beautifully conceived tale of a love so impossible that it makes our soul shiver in frightened delight. But it remains rather blissfully in the zone of the incredible because of its impossibility.

Director Guillermo del Toro taps the fantasy element and yearning that underlines the very real setting of working class misery. He shoots the film like a morality tale in la-la-land.

There is even a musical number where our mute heroine Eliza (the wonderfully self-effacing Sally Hawkins, last seen doing trivia in “Paddington”) bursts into a Judy Garland styled love confession for her object of adoration, a half-human half-amphibian creature she has rescued from a laboratory involved in unmentionable and needless to say, unclassified, international rackets where she works as a janitor.

I know I am tumbling over a torrent of information here. Catch your breath. But that’s the shape this shapely film takes in our perception. A kind of breathless ardour pervades the very basic plotline about a lonely spinster heroine, her ageing gay neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) and the King Kong like creature whom they hide in their apartment.

The narrative is a fascinating mix of fairytale fantasy and working class desolation spiked with a quirky humour and wacky brutality. It’s like Quentin Tarantino gone sober.

Sally Hawkins and Richard Jenkins are almost like Stephen Spielberg’s children from “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” who have their own little secret freak-friend hidden in their home.

There is an innocent wonderment secreted in this remarkable film. No doubt about that. But finally what I saw was a very basic skeletal morality tale where a poor brave lonely woman takes on a bully from the Establishment, Richard Strickland (played by the scarily scummy Micheal Shannon) and defeats him because…well, love conquers all. At least in the movies.

To drive home the point of how essential it is to fill our lives with wishful thinking (or, as it happens in this film, wishful sinking since the amour is aqueous) the director situates the drama of Eliza’s life in a cinematic stratosphere filled with sounds of delighted shrieks and petrified grunts. You see, Eliza lives in an apartment above a movie theatre and lives a life of suppressed longings.

Hawkins is so majestically mousy in her lovelorn avatar, her battle with the Establishment seems doomed from the start. Making the conflict even more unequal is Michael Shannon’s villainy, so vile he makes our Khilji in “Padmaavat” appear humane in comparison. Shannon is a racist, sexist, sadistic lout who uses his brute force with that typically American arrogance that Donald Trump would approve of.

This sense of contemporary conviction compounded with a nostalgia for a time when love was an ache in the heart moving slowly towards the groin, is what makes this film so special.

Denuded of that sense of layered luminosity that we have seen in Guillermo del Toro’s best works (“Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Crimson Peak”), “The Shape Of Water” would have been a classic children’s fairytale if the Beauty did not have the hots for the Beast. Bath tubs will never be a place of innocent contemplation again.

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