Starring: Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Michael Shannon
Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Running Time: 123 mins
Synopsis: It is 1962 and Elisa (Hawkins), a mute isolated woman, works as a cleaner at a secret Government laboratory in Baltimore. Upon discovering the mysterious sea creature trapped within their torturous experiments she begins to form a close bond with this unique beast, and risks everything to ensure its survival.
Far too often when it comes to talking about Guillermo Del Toro there is a propensity to discuss his love of the monster. His affection for those creatures that stalk our fantasies and the way they reveal the humanity within us all is something he has always gravitated to, doing a pretty good job in the process. Few, however, discuss the romanticism at the heart of his work. Del Toro has the unspoken soul of a poet, driven to explore love in all its immutable forms. Whether that be the struggle for a Hell born beast’s desire to connect, the pains of a little girl as she deals with the loss of her mother, or even the warped love affair between siblings, romance in all its aspects is accounted for. You could argue that Pacific Rim, whilst effective in its universe building, was dry, distant and not as fun because it lacked that personal romantic touch.
The Shape of Water turns these background themes into something far more overt, and is all the better for it. This could well be Del Toro’s masterpiece, well second masterpiece after Pan’s Labyrinth. He has crafted something with lyrical importance, coating this tale with a musicians touch. It begins with an ethereal gorgeous glide under water, married up to the gentle musings of narrator Richard Jenkins. Del Toro has always been fascinated with the fairy tale, with this introduction akin to a mystical fable luring us into its evocative world. The setting is Baltimore in the early 60s, and whilst it is recognisably our world it is very much our world but with a slight step to the left. Dan Laustsen’s cinematography wondrous to look at, full of distinct light and noirish darks. Coupled with authentic absorbing production design, Del Toro once again proving how the environments themselves are just as much a character as the players in front.
It is here we meet the mute Elisa. An impish, isolated creature. She spends her days confined to her battered yet warm apartment, with her cranky and creative neighbour Giles (Jenkins) to keep her company. A woman of strict enforced routine, even her daily masturbation is restricted to the ticks of an egg timer, but one who looks upon the world with wonder, moral fibre and no small amount of heart. Sally Hawkins is another level here. Unable to speak but capable of conveying so much with a glint of an expression or a subtle body movement. There is an element of silent movie about her performance, accentuated yet always believable. Jenkins is equally brilliant, showcasing a warmth and a wit, his heartbreaking exploration of his homosexuality played deftly. Most of the films biggest moments of humour come from his frank responses to the outlandish events.
Del Toro wastes no time in introducing his central conceit. Elisha works for a mysterious Government laboratory overnight as a dutiful cleaner, Octavia Spencer’s Zelda her loyal colleague. One night they are sent to clean out one of the vast containment areas in preparation for a new specimen arriving. Elisha catches a glimpse of said creature, trapped within a tube of water, and immediately becomes fascinated with it. Steadily she begins to sneak inside, and forms a connection with the amphibious lifeform. This kinship is slowly developed by Del Toro, subtly investing us in their bond. But trouble lies in the form of the monstrous Strickland (a frequent motif of Del Toro is that figures of authority are usually the real beasts). A pious, racist and formidable individual, but one whom never turns into caricature. In part this is down to the performance of Micheal Shannon, once more using his cold eyes and imposing stature to truly terrify. As well as the complexity of Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor’s script work. Strickland is a man desperate to convince his bosses of his worth, desperate to find some semblance of self worth (watch as the purchase of a coveted new Cadillac gives him confidence) and unable to communicate with a family he remains distant from. It certainly does not condone his actions, some of which are truly horrifying, but you at least understand him.
In fact the lack of communication weighs heavily here. Giles’s inability to speak about his true self, although an attempt to do so is devastating. Zelda’s marital woes led from a silently cold husband (the outcome of this is probably the only moment the film never quite convinces). The hidden agendas of Dr Hoffstetler, Micheal Stuhlberg’s quietly heroic scientist, who keeps his true self a secret but one that causes him to suffer gravely. And of course Elisha and the creature themselves. Connecting through their inability to communicate with others around them, her because of her muteness, it for obvious reasons. But in each other they see no judgements, no cruelty, just themselves. It is truly moving and palpably endearing. Surprisingly for Del Toro The Shape of Water is far more sexually charged than anything he has done before. There is a frankness and a meaning to the nudity or sex we witness. Del Toro proving he wants to show love in all its facets, and yes how the creature has sex is helpfully and playfully sketched out.
Story wise The Shape of Water is remarkably simple. Elisha meets the creature, falls in love, and plots to free it whilst under the watchful eye of Strickland. There are a few twists in the tale, and secondary B-plots that add context to the 60s setting notably involving Dr Hoffstetler. But principally Del Toro wants us to invest in these involving characters, understanding their motivations and absorbing us into their journey in the process. It feels like a personal film, you get the sense that he adores and believes in all his characters no matter how little their screentime may be. They are all instruments in an overarching symphony. In fact music plays such an important role within the structure of the film itself. Whether that be in the records Elisha plays to the creature, the effective use of 50s and 60s music or the glorious musicals Giles and Elisha watch together, their toes dancing in sync in such whimsical joy. Del Toro almost choreographs the film as a musical, particularly in the way Elisha waltzes and glides around her environment. One full scale musical number is so beguilingly beautiful, despite the inherent silliness a more cynical mind may see it as. The Shape of Water is not one for crusty cynics, it is far too joyful, whimsical and rapturously emotional for those not willing to let it in.
There is pretty much nothing I can find to fault with it. So committed to itself and its unabashed soul that to say anything negative would feel too egregious. Production values are fantastic, the score enriching and playful and the creature work particularly wonderful. Done primarily with prosthetics, and brought to life through Doug Jones’s sterling work. His movements delicate, precise, otherworldly but distinctly human at times. He sells the beauty, dexterity and soul with simplicity. I could go on eternal at just how much there is to love about this film. It feels like a tale you might share with your children, minus the masturbation and violence of course, a twisted fable about prejudice, acceptance, communication and above all else, love. In these confusing and troubling times The Shape of Water feels like a gift reminding us of our capacity to embrace one another regardless of colour, creed or background. A triumph.
Verdict: The Shape of Water is a beautifully shot and lyrical ode to the poetry of love. Crafted with a composer’s hand and blessed with some terrific performances, especially an award-worthy Sally Hawkins.