On The Shape of Water

On The Shape of Water

A scene from ‘The Shape of Water’ – filmed in Toronto and Hamilton, Ontario (HO-Fox Searchlight)

– By J.S. Porter 

J.S. Porter
J.S. Porter
As in most fairy tales, whether ET or Beauty and the Beast, the plot of The Shape of Water is a simple one. A mute female janitor in a military research centre falls in love with a captive creature (both human and fish-like in appearance). Despite the efforts of sadistic Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) to de-humanize Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and to experiment on her strange-looking amphibious friend, they manage to bond with each other-first by sound (tapping), then by touch. The film traces their growing intimacy step by step, with an accompanying cast of characters who either try to facilitate their union or try to thwart it.

With its 13 Oscar nominations, I’m rooting for The Shape of Water to win the Oscar for Best Picture because Mexican director Guillermo del Toro is a warm, deep-feeling human being. Because his movie is a love story in the form of a fairy tale. Because of the brilliant performance by Sally Hawkins as the mute janitor. Because of an Amphibian (Merman, Fish-Man, Amazon god, take your pick)-played by Doug Jones who was the Faun in del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth-who is beautiful. He also heals. Because of the charm of the voice-over (Richard Jenkins as Giles) in the opening scene where you see objects in a room floating:

“If I spoke about it – if I did – what would I tell you? I wonder. Would I tell you about the time? It happened a long time ago, it seems. In the last days of a fair prince’s reign. Or would I tell you about the place? A small city near the coast, but far from everything else. Or, I don’t know…Would I tell you about her? The princess without voice. Or perhaps I would just warn you about the truth of these facts. And the tale of love and loss. And the monster, who tried to destroy it all.”

I’m cheering for The Shape of Water because it’s shot in Toronto and Hamilton. “Other than Guillermo and the cinematographer and some of the actors, every single person on this film was Canadian and really kind of from Toronto – so it absolutely is I think unprecedented, frankly, in terms of the type of recognition” Toronto co-producer J. Miles Dale is quoted as saying.

You can recognize The Elgin Theatre on Yonge Street, the old Massey Hall with its red door, the Gardiner Expressway, the Toronto Waterfront, Hamilton City Hall, the old Hamilton library, the Hamilton waterfront where the sand piles from Stelco’s Steel Works came in handy. The Lakeview restaurant at Dundas and Ossington in Toronto were also filmed along with an apartment building on MacNab Street in Hamilton where Elisa’s friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) lives. Del Toro has tweeted lovingly about his time in Hamilton, my city. He liked the restaurants-including two of my favourites, The Burnt Tongue and Papa Leo’s-and a particular bookstore I frequent on James Street South, The Bookseller.

New Yorkers, Londoners, Parisians, even Torontonians are used to seeing their cities on the big screen, but we Hamiltonians don’t see our city very often in internationally successful films.

The Shape of Water combines Fairy Tale (call it, if you prefer, Fantasy or Magic Realism) with Parable (a story with a moral). At times it seems a little too didactic and clear-cut – the villains are very bad and the good guys are very good. The movie doesn’t spend long in the grey zone, where most people conduct their daily lives. Set in Baltimore in the 1960s during the Cold War (even though we know the real city is Toronto and Hamilton as stand-ins), the film champions the Other, be the Other in the form of a merman (a fish-man) or “a princess without a voice” or a gay man or a black woman, or a sensitive Russian scientist. Whites, whether Americans or Russians, in positions of power, don’t come off so well.

The Shape of Water is a film of excess, colour, exuberance, dance, poetry, and love. And when you have a film this sensitive to the power of love you suspend your disbelief and ignore whatever faults it may have more than compensated for with its superabundant lushness. The underwater scene with the sea-creature and Elisa enacts a gorgeous ballet of two beings in love.

The voice-over enters the film a second time with these words:

“If I told you about her, what would I say? That they lived happily ever after? I believe they did. That they were in love? That they remained in love? I’m sure that’s true. But when I think of her-of Elisa-the only thing that comes to mind is a poem, whispered by someone in love, hundreds of years ago: ‘Unable to perceive the shape of You, I find You all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with your Love. It humbles my heart. For you are everywhere.'”

I believe in this film. Not to believe in it is not to believe in magic, enchantment or love. For a few cinematic moments, a mute woman falls in love with a beautiful sea creature, and you fall in love with them as they fall in love with each other.