Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer
Runtime: 123 Minutes
Popular culture has for the past two decades being reaping the pleasure of Guillermo del Toro’s superlative talents as one of contemporary cinemas greatest visionaries; a genius composer of imagery and sound, whose affection for the strange and dark realms of fairytales have saturated his own very unique aesthetic and storytelling approach. He has evolved with the times as much as he has shown his undying fondness for the macabre, the fanciful and the beautiful.
The Shape of Water has a premise that sounds like one of his most difficult sells, in which mute custodian Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) befriends a captured humanoid-amphibian creature (Doug Jones) at a high-security government laboratory. An admittedly absurd premise in theory, but in execution, it’s a moving and essential work of art; a genre-defying masterpiece that feels like an amalgamation of so many of his most explored themes, and an all-encompassing expression of humanity as seen from a very specific point in time.
His relating of the worlds of fantasy and dream into the very real backdrop of 1962 Baltimore at the heat of the Cold War creates a wholly unique universe in which to set his abnormal fairytale romance. The colour of the interior environments and the rainy moonlit streets of a romanticised America is distinctive and memorable from sets to costumes, with a crisp and amazing sound design to everything from droplets of water to clicking heels against hardwood floors.
Sound being of significance given Elisa’s position as a mute protagonist who communicates through sign language with her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), a struggling gay advertisement illustrator, and her co-worker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), an African-American woman who also serves as her interpreter at work – both of whom are brilliant in their supporting roles delivering heart and offbeat comedy in their stride.
Elisa is del Toro’s greatest creation since Ofelia of Pan's Labyrinth. So much of her character is immediately built up through action and interaction with the world around her over the near-wordless introductory scenes. Her life of content but mundane routine playing out before our eyes, her emotions spelt through Hawkins’ remarkable performance. She gives so much expression through her posture, movements and her wide and wonderful eyes as she explores the scenery of her home and the facility in which she works.
It is in this damp and brutally designed place that we find Doug Jones as the nameless creature; an amphibious man whose visual reference point seems to be that of the Gill-man in Creature from the Black Lagoon. Del Toro works to bring a new layer of understanding to what any other genre movie might treat as the monster, but here humanised by Jones’s tremendous performance and prosthetic makeup design that makes him immediately empathetic and relatable in contrast to the real monsters at work.
Said villains stand as the shady government officials behinds the scenes that have entrapped him and wish to vivisect him for research to advance the ongoing Space Race. The face of this antagonism falls on Michael Shannon’s Colonel Richard Strickland, and Shannon is as accustomed and perfectly suited to playing disturbed and grotesque figures of power trapped within the confines of suburbia and a fundamentalist belief system.
The film is a hub of social commentary that manages to juggle so many different ideas without dropping one of them without a form of resolution when applied to its characters. The world is always focused on the future, where the commoditisation and consumerism of Strickland’s life and work asks him to attain unobtainable expectations where enough is never enough. This, in turn, bleeds over into the toxic masculinity subtext of its workplace hierarchy, and the intolerance of a society to radical sentiments of invading communists like Michael Stuhlbarg’s informant doctor. Then there are the racial divisions cast upon Zelda being matched by the equally thorny case of Giles own homosexuality expressing itself in heartbreaking ways.
It’s a melting pot of concepts and ideas at play in an exaggerated – yet all too close – version of our own past and present, but first and foremost this is a love story and the way in which del Toro presents it is heartfelt, bold and incredibly joyful. This is a love born through physical and non-verbal language, expressing itself in ways both emotional and in some cases physical in the film’s most memorable and touchingly potent scenes. Few filmmakers could ever pull off some of what he is able to achieve here through an impossible balance of tone and engagement.
Journeys into the abstract through physically portrayed metaphor are never strained by a screenplay that relies on very little exposition, allowing the work of Alexandre Desplat’s beautiful score, Dan Laustsen’s elegant cinematography and its serene storytelling pace to take you along with it.
The Shape of Water is one of the greatest works of one of the greatest living filmmakers; a wholly original story of boundlessly wonderful cinematic delights. Impeccably told by its makers and stars, this is a strange and special work that’s darkly violent, deeply romantic and unconditionally wonderful in every atom of its being.