The Shape of Water, this year’s most Oscar-nominated film, was not what was to be expected. Watching the growing hype surrounding the movie, I was initially confused. I mean, how much depth could there be to a plot centring around a fish-man and a mute woman falling in love? Why is it nominated for everything? And how did it get a 92% Rotten Tomatoes critic score? Suffice to say, as an intensely critical filmgoer, I was curious to see why this strange story was doing so well.
The storyline is unusual for a “Best Picture” nominee – and eventual winner. As I said above, the movie focuses on the budding romance between a mute janitor and the fish-man held in captivity, all taking place within a top secret research facility in the 1960s. It follows very carefully the traditional arcs found in beloved fairy tale romances, mixed with classical Hollywood influence. The fish-man looks like he came straight from the 1954 sci-fi The Creature From the Black Lagoon and there’s quite the romantic dance routine set in black-and-white that is characteristic of any old school romance. In this way, it seems to celebrate the power of Hollywood cinema.
However, this is not just another predictable Hollywood cinematic masterpiece – no, this is a movie made for the political scene of 2018. Guillermo del Toro did not just pick up “Best Director” at the Oscars for remaking something that has been done countless times before. Instead, he has been clear in stating that this is a film that is more, that pushes the boundaries and is about accepting and embracing the “other.”
The lead character is a mute woman, the main supporting characters are a black woman and a closeted gay man, and the only villain is an angry and bitter boss with a superiority complex towards anyone who isn’t also white. The film interestingly touches on his religion, which, due to his distorted view of faith, has prevented him from learning how to accept what is not the same. Though there were times where the characters were caught up in caricatures, the intensity of the overall story makes such moments of weakness (if they could even be considered as such) forgetful.
Similar to del Toro’s 2006 masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, this movie fits perfectly into the genre of magical realism. It is the perfect blend of something accessible yet fantastical, like an old fairytale set in a familiar setting.
The storyline deals with a common present-day trope, in that it centres on the idea of a love that isn’t “proper”, but del Toro masterfully recreates it to become a piece of art, rather than just a statement on our current reality. Inherently political, it spins it so that it becomes timeless, something beautiful and provocative, instead of just the latter. It raises questions about preconceived notions and assumptions for the modern day, all set to a wonderful score with spectacular cinematography. It’s wistfully nostalgic and relevant, well deserving of its 13 Oscar nominations and 4 eventual wins. I would definitely recommend this movie for your next night in!