This movie is really great!…
….IF you haven’t already seen Pan’s Labyrinth.
This is my review of The Shape of Water!
Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute janitor at a top secret research facility circa 1962. Though a hearing person, she communicates with the few friends she has via American Sign Language (yes, as an interpreting student, I will get into the accuracy of the ASL in this film). All is well and mundane until a mysterious amphibian fella known as “The Asset” is brought into the lab to be both tested and tortured by Strickland (Michael Shannon). A woman with no voice, Elisa begins to form a bond with this voiceless creature that leads her to do what she has never dared before.
Sally Hawkins is probably one of the best mute characters in recent memory. Elisa is a woman defined by powerlessness; no voice, lowly job, even her home is a one-room apartment in a dumpy complex. As I mentioned, Elisa is not Deaf, but a hearing woman, yet she uses ASL to make herself heard. This is kind of a side note, but in the film we see what is called the Helper Model, which was the first service model of interpreting. Basically in the days before professional ASL interpreters, family, friends, teachers and members of clergy served as “interpreters” for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing. In this movie, Elisa’s friends, a fellow janitor named Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and Giles (Richard Jenkins), her neighbor, are her helpers. They don’t sign to her, but they understand and interpret sign-to-voice what she says when others address her. However even her language holds little weight in a speaking world. Her budding relationship with The Asset is contrary to her everyday existence; she teaches him ASL, she provides him with food and companionship, she is the one who eventually breaks him out of the research facility. She has power in this relationship that she never has in her day-to-day. Okay, yes, Eliza and the Asset do consummate their romance. However there is no full-blown sex scene. It’s literally this: She undresses, walks to him in her shower and pulls up the curtain. That’s it. There is another scene where she quite literally floods her bathroom (good luck getting that to dry later) and swims naked with the Asset, but by this point, the movie has built enough context so that this scene signifies that she essentially wants to be a part of his world. If you’re now singing “Part of Your World” from Little Mermaid right after reading this, well, I’m sorry not sorry. 🙂
In regards to the ASL, I’d say 98% of the signs and grammatical structure are accurately used in this film. I did see one or two old signs that are no longer used within the Deaf community (such as the sign for “mute,” which is used because Eliza is in fact a mute character), but otherwise Eliza and the Richard Jenkin character sign better than the “interpreter” guy at Nelson Mandala’s funeral.
A major theme throughout the film is the reality of those who have no power. Every protagonist is an individual who is powerless in their own society. We’ve covered Eliza’s powerlessness, Zelda is African-American and given the time period, she has zilch power in white America, Giles is subtly implied to be gay and closeted, so no power or agency for him, and of course the Asset is subjected to daily torture and abuse by Michael Shannon’s Richard Strickland. Speaking of Strickland, his character is the exact opposite of Eliza, Zelda, Giles and the Asset; male, white, heterosexual and in complete control of everything that goes on in the research facility. Now his character could be seen as created to vilify conservatives, but both the script and Shannon himself make this character three-dimensional. His power makes sense within the context of the time period the story is set in. His oppression of the other characters is more subtle and realistic as to how someone in his position would act; he is never seen whipping Zelda or raping Eliza, but his casually racist comments and implications that these characters are beneath him make for a compelling villain.
Okay, Guillermo, can we talk?
Now I LOVE Pan’s Labyrinth; it was my 100th review here on this blog. That movie was a major game-changer for me and it’s one of the reasons I developed a passion for languages (I did try to learn Spanish a few years after first watching Pan’s, but the Lord guided me to ASL instead; thank You Jesus 🙂 ), but as good as Shape of Water is, the plot relies way too heavily on story elements from Pan’s Labyrinth.
Here, as a Pan’s fan, let me just walk you all through what it was like to watch Shape of Water.
Act I: Okay, this is good. Beautiful color palate, nice greens and midnight blues…I’ve seen this color palate before, but whatever…the main villain is an oppressive, toxic-masculinity tyrant…huh, kind of reminds me of Captain Vidal, but Michael Shannon’s guy is different enough. Okay, I like this, and hooray for ASL on the big screen!
Act II: Huh, this movie has a sympathetic doctor character who stands up to the tyrannical toxic masculine villain…oh, hi Dr. Ferrero from Pan’s Labyrinth! Come to think of it, the powerless characters theme is similar to Pan’s…nah, this one’s different enough…
Act III: [SPOILER!!!…though not really if you’ve seen the first ten minutes of Pan’s] Okay, this whole third act is nearly identical to the ending of Pan’s Labyrinth! Hmm, let’s see, a short-haired brunette gal standing in the rain who gets shot in the stomach by the tyrant villain. Also there’s a brief musical montage that rips off the “what-could-have-been” ending of La La Land.
So what’s my whole point? On it’s own, this movie is great…BUT if you’ve seen Pan’s Labyrinth, which is even better, Shape of Water is just good. Now the reusing of plot elements don’t destroy Shape, but it is a little worrying that this movie is so dependent on the eleven year old predecessor. Look, Guillermo, I know that Crimson Peak, an original story by yourself, didn’t work out so well at the box office, but you can still create original stories that don’t need to be spoon-fed by a previous work. Going forward, an artist needs to branch out and try new things. At some point the copying of tropes that worked in the past will tire and your work will become dated.
Overall The Shape of Water is definitely an experimental film, primarily with the premise of “why doesn’t the creature from the black lagoon get the girl?” question. The movie is held together by excellent performances, a fantastic representation of American Sign Language, and the intrigue of the premise. Hopefully this will be the only time Guillermo del Toro copies and pastes from Pan’s Labyrinth and will create works that stand on their own in the future. But for now, I’m glad The Shape of Water is receiving all the accolades it has clearly earned.
Saint Margaret of Cortona, pray for us.