I always start each batch of new additions to the List with the Best Picture winner; it’s a tradition I have that just sorta happened. Knowing this, I watch each year’s Oscars and pay careful attention to the Best Picture race, as I know I’ll end up getting to the winner sooner than later (if I haven’t seen it already). I, and many others to boot, had a delightful upswing of gratitude and emotion just watching Guillermo del Toro take home not only Best Director for The Shape of Water, but Best Picture as well; the emotion going through him and what the awards meant to him was palpable in his speeches. This same swelling of emotion, the same level of heart and passion and what this film (and to an extent the cinematic medium) means to him, is also patently evident when one watches The Shape of Water; the man just loves stories, and the capabilities of the medium of cinema to tell the stories he wants to tell.
Elisa Esposito, a woman mute since childhood, works as part of the cleaning crew at a top-secret research facility in 1960s Baltimore; her only two friends in the world being Zelda, another woman on the cleaning staff who serves as a sign language interpreter for her, and Giles, her elderly next-door neighbor. This somehow ends up changing for Elisa when the facility brings in a new subject of study, known only as the Asset, which turns out to be an amphibian-like man-creature absconded from South America by Col. Richard Strickland, who intends to use the creature to potentially gain an edge in the space race with the Soviets, as well as with his superiors in the government. Happening upon the creature in its tank one day, Elisa quickly forms a bond with it, and when the higher-ups of the facility start to talk of killing the creature to dissect it, she hatches a plan with her friends to break the creature out of the facility so that it can be returned to the sea, falling in love with it along the way. Despite what the moderate length of that plot summary may have you believe, there’s really not much more to the film than that; there’s some subplots involving the supporting players, including an undercover Russian in the facility who ends up helping Elisa in her escape plan, but these subplots really don’t matter. It’s the love story at the center, as unconventional as it is, that is what matters… so why spend a shade over two hours on a love story? The director, Guillermo del Toro, would answer that question with a sincere and warm-hearted smile and say, “Why not?” Unlike some of the other Best Picture nominees of recent memory, and even a few in this past year’s roster, this is a film that isn’t meant to wow you or bowl you over with how amazing or unbelievable a film it is; it is far too simple for that. And that’s the point; this is a simple story, made into a relatively simple film, but imbued with so much passion for the story itself and the method of storytelling that it employs that one simply can’t fault del Toro for what he aims to achieve with it. Sure, the production value is extensive, washing almost everything in the film with blues and greens to evoke water and the creature itself; the score by Alexander Desplat is lovingly memorable; the acting by everyone involved, headlined by Sally Hawkins, is right on the money; and really, it’s no wonder the film, as fully crafted as it is, got as many nominations at the Oscars as it did. But all of this, all of these aspects of the film, are merely tools; tools that del Toro has made use of in a singular purpose: to tell a wonderful story, and I mean wonderful in the literal definition and breakdown of the word.
To be honest, I watched this film, and finished it, not thinking it had really done much or covered much ground, especially to win Best Picture over some of the other films in the roster (of which I’ve currently only seen two, so I couldn’t say for certain). It was after it was over, though, while I was thinking about it, that the point of it all managed to click into place in my head, and it is that point that I’ve tried to focus on and get across in this review. In addendum to that point, I believe that one going into this film shouldn’t go into it with the wrong mindset, as I seemed to have done at the outset of my viewing; this includes going into it expecting to be wowed by a film that ended up winning Best Picture. Simply put, this is not that film. This is just a story, a fantasy, as simple as it is effective, and anything more than that would be reaching at something that isn’t there. Don’t make the mistake of reaching; just appreciate this for what it is, and you’ll end up appreciating it a lot more than you otherwise might’ve.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10