Faith and Film: The Shape of Water

Movie Review by Fr. Tom Condon, O.P.

The Shape of Water is the latest film from director Guillermo del Toro. It has been described in many ways, perhaps best as an “adult fairy tale.” It’s a beautiful, imaginative film in so many ways, and is already receiving several mentions in the end of the year awards.

The Shape of Water tells the story of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a lonely, mute woman who lives in an apartment above a movie theater in Baltimore, circa 1960. Her neighbor and friend is a lonely gay man named Giles (Richard Jenkins). Elisa works as a cleaning woman at a top secret defense institution with her other friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer).

One day Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the director of the institution, brings in a mysterious, amphibious creature which he captured in South America. The creature is considered dangerous and top secret. An altercation with the creature causes Strickland to lose three of his fingers. Even though it lives in water, it possesses human features. Comparisons have been made between this creature and the 1950’s science fiction classic The Creature from the Black Lagoon. It’s the height of the Cold War and the scientists want to study the creature to see what they can learn. The Russians also learn about this creature from a spy working in the institute, and they’re also interested.

Elisa enters the restricted area where the creature is kept to clean. At first she is curious about the creature, and has compassion upon him, as she sees Strickland torture him. Elisa begins to leave food for him, which he takes. Elisa does not find the creature threatening. Elisa senses that his isolation in a way mirrors her own.

Fearing that the creature may be further harmed, or even killed by Strickland, Elisa devises a plot to rescue the creature, reluctantly aided by Giles and Zelda. They are able to rescue the creature and bring him to Elisa’s small apartment, where he stays in the bathtub. With Strickland and the Russians intent on finding the creature, Elisa realizes she has no choice but to set him free.

I loved being immersed in the imaginative world of del Toro. The cinematographer and art directors have designed the look of The Shape of Water in blues and greens, the colors of the water and even the creature. It even rains a lot in the movie! The beautiful score by Oscar winning composer Alexandre Desplat adds greatly to the mood of the film. I also enjoyed the fact that Elisa and Giles often escape their loneliness by watching old movies and television.

The cast is excellent, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them honored during awards season. Hawkins is great, playing all her scenes (with one exception) without speaking, using her expressive face to convey emotion. Jenkins and Spencer are great as Elisa’s friends. Shannon may be a bit over the top as the villain.

The Shape of Water is a lovely fable about loneliness and connecting in unexpected ways. In addition to The Creature from the Black Lagoon, it’s also similar to Beauty and the Beast. As mentioned, this is an adult story, including nudity, a rough sex scene, and some violence, and strong language. So be advised if you’re considering seeing it.