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In Appreciation of Sally Hawkins’ Elisa in ‘The Shape of Water’

The heroine of director Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is presented as a fully formed woman, already equipped to make the right decisions without hesitation when confronted with cruelty. She doesn’t need to be taught anything or coaxed into following through on what she knows is right. With all her faculties cemented, her journey is decidedly about her principles intermingling with unexpected desire and danger.

Elisa’s life of service is built around the edges of powerful, controlling people. A mute cleaning woman at an American building hosting top secret government operations, she is meant to do her job with her head held down. However, in her presupposed harmlessness, she becomes armed with the ability to witness injustice and effectuate change. Like her close friends, Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is boxed in by repressive mid-century Americana, unable to access the capitalist dream that’s sold as true happiness. Nonetheless, she’s still able to make bold choices when faced with moral dilemmas.

A sounding board for her subjugated friends — weary, unappreciated co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a lonely, closeted advertisement artist — she listens to their problems and goes about a small life of menial, regimented labor while enjoying brief respites in the bath or commuting on the bus. With full hindsight, our narrator — Giles — explains that Elisa is a “princess,” elevating the drudgery of what we see as her daily work and fantasies of escaping into simple black-and-white Hollywood musicals to that of a mere prologue before a measure of triumph that we can’t comprehend just yet. Elisa is fully attuned with her body, connecting with others through sign language, music, and movement. Hawkins signs with a casual frankness, imploring the viewer to be drawn into her defiant compassion.

In a fairy tale of her own making, this princess is the wise savior who also manages to preserve faith in human generosity in the midst of her employer’s barbarism. An inquisitive and mysterious creature comes into her life who is being held captive and tortured by the United State’s government. Their man, Strickland (the ever ominous Michael Shannon), torments it without a clear objective, while a scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg of A Serious Man and Call Me By Your Name) begs his bosses to study the thing without killing it. With Strickland taking Elisa and Zelda’s silent complicity for granted based on their vulnerable status, Elisa is able to slip through levels of careful security to investigate the extraordinary animal suddenly put in her path.

Incrementally, she finds a mutual sense of love and understanding in the arms of the amphibious being. He is enigmatic and essential to the atmosphere of the del Toro’s world, but secondary to Elisa. Her story doesn’t shy away from sensuality or gore; she regularly pleasures herself and takes sexual charge without the film demeaning her proclivities. Her body is presented in a matter-of-fact manner, not meant to tantalize the male gaze but to better engage with the experience of being in her intimate world. The monster is a peripheral character who appreciates Elisa. She brings the creature gifts and enhances his life with music. He is something of an appendage to her, a symbol of her own captive life and the yearning to break free of it. Yet, he is the dependent one — in need of saving and care. Elisa is the driving force of the narrative, bringing outsiders into the urgency of ending the creature’s pain and imprisonment.

The Shape of Water mimics the whimsy of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie without the protagonist’s ability to dramatically open the lives of others to the outside world. Instead, she subtly expands the mindsets of her friends through her aptitude for curiosity and empathy. Her circle of friends might not be able to single-handedly change the world that holds them back, but by way of Elisa they can take a better inventory of their situations, and make tiny dents in the societal facade that tries to shame them for their race, class, or sexuality.

Hawkins is an obviously gifted performer, with stand out roles under her belt that include Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky and Aisling Walsh’s Maudie. On the surface, Elisa may seem overly sentimental or cliché while tap dancing along to old movies and reaching out from the heart when no one else has the courage to do so, but this obscures the real actions that she takes, her ability to organize a rescue operation and be fearless of the unknown or powerful. Elisa can cloak her involvement by utilizing people’s underestimation of her abilities. She is a multifaceted person that Hawkins renders as an intrepid woman of self-determined agency; the danger that she gets herself into is of her own doing. She recognizes the creature as a kindred spirit — trapped but resilient — but when they are together it is a coming of bodies and spirit, no longer subjugated by the deranged or power hungry.

Co-writers del Toro and Vanessa Taylor make it clear that they are most interested in what Elisa is thinking, as well as the immense determination she puts into her plans. The Shape of Water is dedicated to the possibilities of a woman that society has tried to marginalize and hide away. She is judged by the cumulative content of her actions, with the story ultimately revering her as a testament to kindness and dignity.

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