Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) sees her days progress more or less the same way, every day. Or rather, every night, as she works shifts at a government lab as a cleaner there; nobody really notices her, except her best friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) who has learned sign language in order to speak with her. This is not because Elisa is deaf, but she is mute, thanks to a childhood incident she cannot remember, as it happened before she was conscious of the world, having been found as a baby with no parents to claim her. She may have had a sad life, but she takes her small moments of joy where she finds them: however, she is about to encounter the man of her dreams. Sort of a man, anyway.
When writer (with Vanessa Taylor) and director Guillermo del Toro won his Oscars for The Shape of Water, it was widely regarded as much a career award as it was for this particular movie, for he had been toiling away making wild feats of the imagination in motion picture form ever since his first, Cronos, back in the mid-nineteen-nineties. His love of horror fiction, especially anything with a monster in it, was well known, and this tribute to one of his favourite movie creatures was as much paying respects to the Hollywood of old that spawned these entertainments as it was an appeal to more contemporary issues of tolerance and the right for every important voice to be heard.
There was no irony in his heroine having no voice in that respect, it was entirely deliberate, at once a plot point and a metaphor for the disenfranchised who were not merely routinely ignored, but actively shunned as having no place in the more conservative mainstream society. The fact this arrived at a time when those termed as minorities were being heard more often than ever did not necessarily work against the overall effect of this effort, it more pointed to the way that there will always be those who wind up neglected in the rush to dominate the common consciousness, and del Toro was quite prepared to remember them, even if it was in this, in effect a fairy tale for the third millennium.
No matter that it was set in the early sixties, where there were plenty more unheard than there were in the online world of 2017 when this was released, but here was an acknowledgement that there were always going to be those who were quieter than those with the loudest means of expressing themselves. The amphibian man Elisa meets at work, played by Doug Jones in one of his director's trademark, highly detailed costumes, could represent all sorts, from the gay neighbour/guardian (Richard Jenkins) she lives next to, to the African American co-worker Zelda who in one blunt scene are both clearly not part of the bigger picture according to the establishment, but the film took the point of view that if that establishment was summed up by Elisa's corrupt and sadistic boss (Michael Shannon ramping up the villainy to boo-hiss proportions) - who wanted any of that anyway?
Many called The Shape of Water a mere updating of classic fifties horror Creature from the Black Lagoon, although an updating of its sequel Revenge of the Creature would be more accurate with a degree of Koko: A Talking Gorilla too, but it was seemingly setting the scales of justice straight after what happened to that much abused title character. To make up for Julie Adams not giving a shit about the Creature's emotional life and needs back in 1954, the beast man here had a more than willing partner in a "there's somebody for everyone" spirit of romantic generosity as Elisa becomes fascinated by him, then determined to rescue him from both the machinations of East and West who both initially see him as worthy of interest, then eventually worthy of destruction because it hurts their brains to treat him as a thinking entity. Make no mistake, he was still a monster and this was still a horror flick, as that cat would attest, but monsters come in all shapes and sizes. Only a sense that this was a little over-didactic and self-righteous moved against the overall benevolent impression, but its heart was resolutely in the right place. Music by Alexandre Desplat.
Stylish Mexican horror director who moves between personal projects and Hollywood blockbusters. After a couple of short films, he earned international attention with unusual vampire chiller Cronos. Mimic was an artistically disappointing follow up, but he enjoyed success with vampire action sequel Blade II, spooky ghost story The Devil's Backbone, and another horror comic adaptation, Hellboy. Spanish Civil War fantasy Pan's Labyrinth was widely seen as a triumph and won three Oscars. After a long spell in production hell since Hellboy 2, he returned with giant monster mash Pacific Rim and gothic chiller Crimson Peak. The Shape of Water, an unconventional horror romance, garnered him Oscars.