UK Release Date: 14th February 2018
Runtime: 123 minutes
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writer: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg
Synopsis: A mute cleaning lady in a high-security research facility forms an unspoken bond with a strange, humanoid fish creature brought in for study and subsequently mistreated by those in charge.
The humanisation of the monster and dehumanisation of the violent person are the dual pillars of Guillermo del Toro‘s filmmaking ethos. Demons and spectres are deeper in this world than cold-blooded killers, such as Pan’s Labyrinth‘s Captain Vidal and Jessica Chastain‘s psychotic sibling in Crimson Peak. Del Toro serves up another memorable monster in Oscar-tipped fantasy tale The Shape of Water, which weaves the conventions of the fairytale with real-world concerns to produce an evocative, poetic story of forbidden love that casts a captivating spell.
Shape of Water replaces the passionate, burning reds of Crimson Peak‘s colour palette with the greens and browns of its murky research facility. Where Del Toro’s last film was about earth and land, this one is about water and its boundless ability to fill any space demanded of it, much as love expands to an all-consuming volume. At the heart of it all is Sally Hawkins as Elisa, who now works as a cleaner having been found as an orphan in the water with her vocal cords ripped from her throat.
Evocative early scenes show Elisa’s simple daily routine, with a refreshing foreground role for female sexual desire, and her relationships with neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) – a closeted gay man – and work colleague Delilah (Octavia Spencer). Giles is creative and introduces Elisa to his favourite Old Hollywood movies, with the magic of the big screen seemingly seeping upwards from the cinema below their apartments. Delilah, meanwhile, fills all of the silence generated by Elisa’s disability with amusing motormouth babble surrounding her layabout husband.
It’s the duo of Hawkins and Del Toro that owns The Shape of Water. This is the role of Hawkins’s career, allowing her uniquely impressive face to convey a galaxy of emotions. She has always possessed an ageless visage of wonderment, as if she’s spellbound by the world around her, and that’s certainly true of Elisa, who views life with a wide-eyed naivete. It’s this that causes her to grow closer to a humanoid amphibian creature (Doug Jones), who is brought into the facility by security boss Strickland (Michael Shannon). What begins when she places a hard-boiled egg on the edge of his tank becomes a romantic fascination that leads to a daring escape from captivity.
The fish man is a compelling, believable creation realised via wonderful visual effects work and the ever-impressive physicality of seasoned monster performer Jones. He serves as a clear metaphor for the outsider in 1960s America, alongside Hawkins’s disabled protagonist, Jenkins’s gay man and Spencer’s black woman. Together, they’re a clear force opposing the white hegemony, represented by Shannon’s snarling, misogynistic maniac. It’s tough not to draw a line between the current #MeToo campaign and Hawkins’s ability to defend what she believes despite the literal absence of her voice.
Del Toro’s affection for the outsider and belief in their strength is clear, but The Shape of Water works just as well on the surface as an elegant, atmospheric fairytale. The magical intonations of Alexandre Desplat’s score are the perfect companion to the visuals, which are consistently as brave and transgressive as they are artful. Del Toro conjures a tone capable of holding together a film that features gangrenous severed fingers, interspecies sex and a fishy song and dance dream sequence. A subplot involving Russian spies initially sits a little weirdly, but feeds in to the general sense of paranoia and politicking, against which the refreshing simplicity of forbidden love shines all the more brightly.
The Shape of Water is, like the best of Del Toro’s movies, the sort of film no one else in today’s cinema would dare make. Its affection for the outwardly monstrous is a compelling endorsement of equality and the performances across the board are fully committed to making this weird world a believable and layered environment for a story that takes comparisons to Beauty and the Beast and renders them obsolete with its defiant position as a revisionist adult fairytale.
By the time the poetic final voiceover elucidates the true meaning of the title, Del Toro has left his audience with a potent final image that ensures this particular tale can definitely breathe under the deep water of its critical hype.
Pop or Poop?
Regardless of whether it wins awards or not, The Shape of Water is destined to emerge as one of the best films of 2018. It’s a richly layered fable that benefits from an ensemble of terrific performers, singing from the hymn sheet of one of cinema’s most unique and enjoyable auteurs.
It’s a film that rewards multiple viewings with its tender allegory and will make even the most hard-hearted of cynics amongst us believe that a woman can fall in love with a fish. You’ll fall in love too.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.