Director: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Doug Jones, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg
Steven Spielberg once suggested that if someone can tell him an idea in a single sentence, it will make a pretty good movie. In the case of Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, that sentence would be “A mute cleaning lady falls in love with a fish monster.” It’s an unusual sentence, and its an unusual film: a Cold War noir, fairytale romance to be precise. But you know what, Spielberg was right. It’s a pretty good movie.
Elisa (Sally Hawkins) lives in a small Baltimore apartment, upstairs from a cinema. She is mute and lives on her own, but she is not alone. She spends her time watching old musicals on television with her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted gay artist, and works as a cleaner at a military aerospace research facility with the irrepressible Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who fortunately does enough talking for the both of them. One evening Elisa and Zelda are called into a lab for an emergency cleanup where Elisa comes face to face with a humanoid fish creature. Found living in a river in South America where the locals worshipped him as a god, the creature, referred to by the scientists only as ‘the assett,’ has been brought back to the facility for studying in the hope that it will somehow give the US an advantage over the Soviets in the space race. Curious but unafraid, Elisa takes to stealing time in the lab with the creature – sharing her lunch, playing it music – and the two of them form a bond which soon blossoms into love. The creature is regularly brutalised at the hands of masochistic head of security, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), and when the military superiors determine that the only way to get the answers they need is to dissect the creature, Elisa decides, with the help of Zelda, Giles and scientist Dr Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), to break the creature out and set him free.
Guillermo del Toro is one of the most imaginative directors in world cinema, a true auteur with a distinctive visual style and fascination with the fantastic. The Shape of Water is a celebration of the old 1930s monster movies in a way that only he could, by transforming them from horror stories to fairy tales. The film commences with an uncanny image, Elisa asleep and floating above the lounge in the middle of her apartment which is filled with water. Over this image is narration from Richard Jenkins character, setting the scene for a magical tale of love, loss, monsters and a “princess without a voice.” This fairytale is one about outsiders, about those who are without a voice, whether literally or metaphorically. Cleaners, women, an African-American, a gay man, a Soviet spy, all of the principle characters are disempowered figures in 1960s society who feel much more akin to the creature than the institution that holds it.
Central to the effectiveness of The Shape of Water is how quickly we accept their most unconventional love. At no point does the film wink at the audience, undermining or questioning the legitimacy of their emotional connection. This is a fairytale world in which characters initially react to the creature with wonder rather than fear, with no one displaying the slightest difficulty in accepting that this creature could exist. As such, for the characters in the film, Elisa and the creature’s relationship is one between a woman and a prisoner rather than a woman and a monster. This allows the story to function as a classic love story in the tradition of the great Douglas Sirk melodramas rather than a sideshow oddity.
In an era of great cynicism The Shape of Water is a very sincere movie, but not a naive one. A fairytale it may be, but a children’s film it is most definitely not. As with Pan’s Labyrinth – still del Toro’s best picture – there is a darkness to this fairy tale, an embracing of the ugliness of the world, which butts heads with its sense of wonder. Alexandre Desplat’s whimsical score and Paul D. Austerberry’s beautiful production design bring a sense of fantasy, but moments of violence and, in particular, a candid approach to sexuality, challenge expectations. While there is the potential for this combination to prove awkward, making the film simultaneously slightly too dark to be enjoyed as a fairytale and slightly too whimsical to be a serious drama, del Toro walks this line masterfully.
Sally Hawkins is brilliant as Elisa. Without the use of her voice she is dependent on her eyes and face to communicate the internal experience of her character, and we still hear her loud and clear. She imbues Elisa with a complex combination of fear and loneliness, strength and defiance. Elisa is also interestingly presented as a sexual character without being in any way a sexualised character. While Hawkins carries the film, she is surrounded by strong, fun performances. Octavia Spencer is joyful and protective as Zelda, Richard Jenkins tragic and tender as Giles, and Michael Shannon deliciously villainous as Strickland, the Gaston of this Beauty and the Beast tale, more monstrous than the monster.
While Guillermo del Toro’s English-language work has tended to be larger in scale and a more Hollywoodised version of his directorial style (Pacific Rim, Hellboy), The Shape of Water, which was made for a surprisingly low budget of US$19.5m, is more in keeping with his Spanish-language films like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. A measured mixture of darkness and light, The Shape of Water is a simply enchanting film which could seemingly only have come from the mind of this unique cinematic artist.
Review by Duncan McLean
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