Music Critiques: The Shape of Water


In 2018, The Shape of Water signaled a return of fantasy to the Academy Awards after fourteen years since the 2004 win of Return of the King.[1] The story, set in the Cold War era of 1962, is about an aquatic creature, Amphibious Man (Doug Jones) as captured by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), now confined within a secret research laboratory. Curiously, a professional deaf janitor, Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins) develops a relationship with the creature and sets about a daring rescue supported by Giles (Richard Jenkins), her longing and artistic neighbor, and Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer), her charming and loving co-worker amongst a beautiful unfolding story about love and courage against a context of contempt. A lush environment of sound envelops and moves audiences in and through thoughtful emotion in clear mastery that is both charming and sensual.

The music to The Shape of Water is a blend of non-diegetic scoring by Alexandre Desplat along with unbelievably beautiful blends of period diegetic source music, both bleeding between scenes and cuts, holding audiences in three major varying themes: liquid, tragic, and eros, representing wonder, compassion, and love. It is a masterpiece of both narrative in visual and musical composition, executed flawlessly by director Guillermo del Toro and the entire team assembled around him. The score by Desplat won an Oscar for Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, and hands down, won deservedly so.[2] We shall review three scenes briefly, followed by a summary in support of the Oscar so awarded.

Liquid: An Opening and Theme

The context of The Shape of Water[3] is represented charmingly by a dominant theme throughout the film, titled “The Shape of Water”[4] heard at the very opening of the film (00:00:37).[5] The theme opens amongst dark inky black backgrounds with a harp playing seven simple notes in a seesaw effect, as if waves upon the sea. The movement of the harp, played in ostinato, sets about a forward momentum, where upon this layer a melody emerges (00:00:50) whereupon the scene reveals a dark ocean floor zooming in on an apartment corridor.[6] The melody is almost theremin like, synthesized with heavy vibrato lending itself to curiosity and science fiction. Chairs float about, amongst tables, and lamps–accordion layers onto the melody. A deep throated, raspy voice, mellifluous and deeply engaging, poetic, narrates a story (00:01:50).[7] The music weaves in and out of the narration, whereupon a sleeping is Eliza passed, whereupon the audience’s point of view shifts toward a ticking clock, heard, emerging into the opening of the film (00:03:00).[8]

The audience is taken on a medley tour of Eliza’s life, in beautifully paced succession. Diegetic music from an old film is heard in the background, garbled through the floors of an apartment building (00:03:50) to a cinema on the first floor (00:04:00), all while Eliza prepares for the day.[9] The Shape of Water theme returns where Eliza boils eggs, settles into a bath (00:03:28), is seen self-stimulating (00:04:40), and emanates orgasm at the sound of an egg timer (00:04:48).[10] We see a calendar, and shoe polishing, then exit from the apartment to a neighbor’s apartment next door, where the audience is introduced to Giles (Richard Jenkins).[11] The audience doesn’t know yet, but the sound and music are critical to set the emotion of the film. The theme stops, yet emotion lingers, moving amongst the audience’s mind, body, and spirit, settling, forecast to return on many occasions. This is the dominant theme of the film, and represents the fluid, the wonder, and the character of the liquid. In fact, the very theme is summarized by a calendar page Eliza tears off a paper calendar, “time is but a river flowing from our past” (00:04:54).[12] An absolute wonder of a theme, it would be a mistake to characterize it as powerful, for it is feminine, mysterious, and beautiful, representing yin, and the deep unknown–gorgeous and lush.

Tragic: A Search for Significance

Stricklen, a deeply troubled character failing to re-capture Amphibian Man, is chastised by General Holt (Nick Searcy) in a degrading and dramatic scene of tragedy (01:34:52).[13] Desplat composes a moving score reminiscent of some of the most award-winning military films of historical culture. General Hoyt breaks into a monologue utterly crushing Stricklen’s significance (01:36:00).[14] Soft harp and dissonant sustained strings set a somber and revelatory mood. Hoyt’s message deeply penetrates Stricklen’s character. Horns play in small tonal clusters, with open cadences, speaking to Stricklen’s unresolved contempt. The scene cuts with Hoyt’s last words, “so get some real decency son, and unfuck this mess” (01:37:13).[15] Stricklen slams open the door and explodes into the men’s restroom, horns open into the score, the tempo quickens, repeating an ostinato of piano chords to raise the tension in the audience. He slams a soap dispenser to the music; the ostinato tempo brings tension. Dejected and motivated, Stricklen begins talking to himself in a mirror, motivating himself to act (01:37:20).[16] It’s an amazing break from the gentle music of the film and characterizes Stricklen’s emotional state perfectly. The music allows an audience to connect with Stricklen’s being and it is surprising in hindsight to the extent that del Toro and Desplat are willing go to develop characters in the film. The range Desplat paints through this scene speaks to the skill within which he composed this score fully embracing every moment. The music is unbelievable, and the scene nearly stands on its own, so much so, with such raw emotion, one could take this scene and make a complete film out of it.

Eros: You’ll Never Know

Nearly unforgettable, not to be confused with the song of the same title, is the musical use of “You’ll Never Know” by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon as performed by Renée Fleming and also Alice Faye (Hello, Frisco, Hello).[17] This also includes a moving adaptation by Desplat. One of the final scenes in the film (01:39:00),[18] is an unbelievably beautiful moment where Eliza and Amphibious Man are imagined by Eliza to be dancing in embrace upon a historical big band stage.[19] What starts out as background diegetic source music, becomes foreground diegetic source music, Eliza speaks the first lyrics, then breaks into song; the author’s tears gush, it’s phenomenal. The music is large, beautiful, sweeping, and contains a full orchestra of strings, brass, and woodwind in a reimagination of the classical song, where Eliza’s imagined ability to sing ends as quickly as it comes (00:41:00).[20] This song, threaded throughout the film is representational of Eliza’s love with, as opposed to for, Amphibious Man, representing Eliza’s overwhelmingly pure and untainted nature. This nature and beauty are characterized beautifully by “You’ll Never Know” as adapted by Desplat. It is phenomenal, tear jerking, and carries audiences into the depths of not only Eliza’s very soul, but also perhaps, the audience’s own.


Between the three scenes reviewed, the “The Shape of Water” theme,[21] the tragic via Stricklen’s scene with General Hoyt, and the big band dance scene adapting “You’ll Never Know”,[22] it is impossible to fully capture the entire array of wall-to-wall scoring in The Shape of Water. Desplat’s characterization of the entirety of the theme of the film carries a charming longing consistency with vivid range and beauty. An entire orchestra is stretched to the limits of timbre, color, and rhythmic capability in portraying environment and character. The music is absolutely engaging. Setting Desplat’s scoring against diegetic source music spanning many historical films of the period within which the film is set is nothing short of brilliant. Desplat’s winning of an Oscar is worthy, and well deserved; every moment of the film is accompanied by music appropriately, so much more than this paper can offer a review of. That said, it is in this author’s sincere opinion that Desplat’s score would not have been as well delivered without non-diegetic period songs, offering pause and rest amongst period classics. The ability of both visuals and music to hold onto longing until the very close of the film without audience exhaustion is genius. It is an absolute joy to bear witness to a film flowing, pure theater moving, as The Shape of Water; even an Oscar is beneath it; I bow in reverent awe of human potential, limitless.

[1] The Shape of Water, directed by Guillermo Del Toro (2017; United States: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and TSG Entertainment Finance LLC); “Academy Awards – Best Motion Picture Winner (DVD & Limited Streaming)”, Indiana University Library, accessed June 18, 2021,; Return of the King, directed by Peter Jackson (2003; United States: New Line Cinema).

[2] “The Shape of Water: Awards”,, accessed June 18, 2021,

[3] The Shape of Water, directed by Guillermo Del Toro (2017; United States: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and TSG Entertainment Finance LLC).

[4] Alexandre Desplat, “The Shape of Water”, London Symphony Orchestra, recorded 2017, track 1 on The Shape of Water, Decca (UMO) (Classics), compact disc.

[5] The Shape of Water.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Renée Fleming, vocalist, “You’ll Never Know”, by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon, recorded 1943; Alice Faye, vocalist, “You’ll Never Know”, by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon, recorded 1943.

[18] The Shape of Water.

[19] Ibid.

[20] The Shape of Water.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.