What’s Different About The Shape of Water?

When was the last time a mute character was the main character in a movie or T.V. series? When was the last time a female mute character was the main character? Almost never, until now. The Shape of Water, directed by Guillermo del Toro, has a mute female lead role, Eliza, played by Sally Hawkins. She also has a best friend, Zelda, who is played by Octavia Spencer. Zelda also often plays the role of translator for Eliza. This movie is set in the 1960s and, as Octavia Spencer points out, the film shows an interracial friendship between the two women in which “Eliza allowed Zelda to be the center of attention” , something that, like their friendship, was rare for the time period. Spencer said her role was humbling because she was so used to playing black women in the 1960s who had no agency, and in this movie she does. Del Toro said in an interview he “deliberately made a movie about politics” and a movie about “coming together in a world that is trying to keep us apart.” This is something we need more of today. Spencer also referred to Shape of Water as “a fairytale for grown-ups” with themes of politics and love.

According to IMDb the movie’s plot is “an other-worldly fairy tale, set against the backdrop of Cold War era America circa 1962. In the hidden high-security government laboratory where she works, lonely Eliza…is trapped in a life of isolation. Eliza’s life is changed forever when she and co-worker Zelda…discover a secret classified experiment.” Eliza and Zelda aren’t the scientists—they’re the janitors in the lab—laborers whose work often gets taken for granted in history and other films. Instead of being forgotten background characters, they are brought to the forefront and are the heroes of this movie. On Rotten Tomatoes, the movie critic website whose been blamed for the downfall of movies this year, the Shape of Water has a 96% approval rating already, which is very high. The critical consensus states that “The Shape of Water finds Guillermo del Toro at his visually distinctive best—and matched by an emotionally absorbing story brought to life by a stellar Sally Hawkins performance.” Overall, they say this is a stunning movie.

Eliza and Zelda

In passing, I have heard complaints about the character Eliza being mute; the argument is that she is not a strong female character because she is being pacified through her lack of speech. Yet in the trailer you can see her purposefully and calmly insulting her sexist boss, knowing he can’t understand her. She also appears to stand up for what she believes in when she tries to get an imprisoned fish man out of the lab as well. She still has a voice, she just communicates differently. Not to mention another ways that del Toro empowers other unusual characters, as here the creature gets the girl in the end for once. Maybe it will even have a happy ending. The movie is coming out in theatres December 8th! Watch the trailer here.

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