The Shape of Water is an impossibly beautiful exploration of love, friendship and humanity; part drama, part heist movie, part thriller, all fantasy, expertly crafted in the way that only director Guillermo del Toro can.
Much like with his peerless classic Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), del Toro delivers a female-led, other-worldly tale set against the backdrop of war. It’s a shift from 1940s Spain to Cold War-era 1960s America. Another time, another place, and yet it feels closer to his Spanish language output than any of his Hollywood efforts to date. Far more intimate and personal than, say, Pacific Rim (2013) or Hellboy (2004), this is where del Toro is at his strongest. Telling stories that are compact yet layered.
At the simplest level, The Shape of Water is a love story between the wonderful Sally Hawkins’ mute cleaner Elisa Esposito and the Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) inspired “Asset” (Doug Jones), a mysterious man-fish amphibian creature which she encounters at her work in a government research facility. To the narrowminded political bods running the facility, the Asset is a vicious monster, a tool to be manipulated for gain. To Elisa, he’s a thing of silent beauty. Each person who faces the creature sees themselves, their true nature, reflected in him. Elisa’s relationship with the creature is key to the very core question of the film; what does it mean to be human? For the voiceless Elisa, she sees her disability as something which makes her less human and yet it’s sign language that enables her to communicate with the creature, to form an affinity with him which in turn allows her to feel complete. Nowhere is this more explicit than in one particularly spellbinding scene in which she spills her heart to her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins, who’s outstanding throughout), signing just this out to him, Hawkins managing to solidify Elisa’s passionate bond with the Asset without saying a single word. And also her desperation. Because one man threatens to take away that which she’s grown to hold dear.
As with all of the greatest fairy tales, for every hero, there’s a defined villain, the actual monster of the film. Michael Shannon’s formidably manic Strickland is just the person for the job. His bullish performance here again brings shades of Pan’s Labyrinth, Strickland echoing that film’s similarly relentless antagonist Captain Vidal (Sergi López). If Elisa, her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) Giles, and the creature itself represent the best of humanity, then Strickland represents its darkest sides. He manages to act not only as Elisa’s polar opposite but also as that of all of the lead protagonists. Where Elisa is human, he’s inhuman. Where the creature shows compassion, he shows a total lack of feeling to even his own wife. And whereas Elisa’s gay friend Giles embodies all of the best traits of what it is to be masculine – brave, loyal, strong – (masculinity being another theme explored so effectively here), Strickland is the stomping embodiment of the worst versions of what it is to be a man; dangerously loaded with testosterone, a barrel-chested, over-priced car driving, pees with his hands on his hips moron.
But if for some reason thematic density isn’t your thing, then how about stylistic depth? The Shape of Water pays homage to the classical cinema of old, evoking memories of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) with its similar indebtedness to the art form and its history, with a specific focus here on the musicals of the Golden Age of Hollywood, all dreamily shot by Dan Laustsen on stunningly detailed sets, accompanied by Alexandre Desplat’s charming score.
It’s a rich and rewarding tapestry, and it’s one of Gullermo del Toro’s finest.
Rating (out of 5):