Guillermo Del Toro’s career has been one of flights of fancy, a director with big ideas and big imagination. He has been heralded with acclaim for past fantasies The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pans Labyrinth (2006) but he has also missed the mark for many with the big budget bombastic Pacific Rim (2013). And whilst his last film Crimson Peak (2015) was a deliciously dark gothic tale, it failed to find an audience for Del Toro. However his latest film arrives on the back of winning the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival and a haul of 13 Oscar nominations, signalling a return to form and one that encapsulates many Guillermo hallmarks.
The Shape of Water is brimming with his love for fantasy and for cinema itself; it is the stuff of B-Movie horror but wrapped up in the styling of a classic Hollywood melodrama, offering both the beauty and the brutality that often inhabit the same space. The film begins in the 1960s with a look into the sweet but simple life of our heroine Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman whose days are filled with practicality but also a sense of wistful imagination, alluding to the loneliness she feels. Elisa works as a cleaner in a government laboratory, a routine that allows her to go almost unnoticed until one day she comes across the scientists latest and most dangerous discovery- an amphibious but human alike creature (played by long time Del Toro collaborator Doug Jones). Elisa begins to bond with the creature; their mutual inability to communicate through spoken language allows them to connect through music, eggs and their own sign language and which makes their resulting against all odds romance, wholly believable. However the political climate means there is Cold War era paranoia afoot with the soviets trying to acquire the ‘asset’.
And there is a menacing government agent named Strickland (Michael Shannon) who appears to have a personal vendetta against the creature and wants it to be destroyed, thinly veiled in the name of science. So it falls to Elisa to hatch a plan to rescue the creature from a terrible fate and find a way to keep their burgeoning relationship afloat.
The marvel of The Shape of Water is how it takes a supremely odd premise, one that shouldn’t work yet weaves it into a fantastical and credible love story, one that feels like a fairytale that has been told through the ages. It plays to Del Toro’s strengths as a director, he simply does not paint pictures but he creates worlds, ones that promise to show us the mythical but also pull us back to harsh sadistic realities. Whilst the film is full of enchanting imagery, of old movie theatres, overflowing baths, stolen moments and dream sequences, it also takes us to the dark side, mostly through Shannon’s evil agent. He may be dressed in a suit but Strickland is the real monster of the film and creates flashes of violence that permeate the narrative, a tool often deployed in the Del Toro cannon. Michael Shannon uses his bug eyed intensity to create a true villain of the piece, you can almost hear the audience want to hiss (and cower) whenever he is on screen. The rest of the cast sell the oddball premise with class and conviction, each supporting member brings something to the table. Elisa’s loyal best friends Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and Giles (Richard Jenkins) both carry the character arch of being on the fringes of society in the 60s but both are fully realised characters, rather than just serving the purpose of affirming their alignment to Elisa. Michael Stuhlbarg meanwhile is the wavering compass of the film, his (secret soviet) scientist wrestles with his conscious of doing his duty for his country and finding compassion for the creature he is to steal.
But at the heart of it all is Sally Hawkins, a woman who often seems fragile and used to being put upon but who transcends her exterior with a steely determination, she is a woman who may appear delicate but who has desire in her heart, sexually and emotionally. Hawkins carries the film with her expressionistic face and her unearthed strength for that what was missing from her life and for what will now make her feel whole. It is a slight shame then that the end of the film seems somewhat rushed, when it’s allowed to breath in so many other areas that our love story’s conclusion is given short shrift but this is a minor damp squib when we have already been delivered so many riches.
Whether Del Toro’s big bold fantasy will make waves at the upcoming Oscars remains to be seen and its unique cinematic vision may be too diverse for some audiences but then the director has always marched to the beat of his own screen drum. It is a delight to see such a piece of work that is clearly a passion project, one that has not been compromised by the powers of the studio. It is also a timely fable for our troubled times, a reminder of those living on the outside, whose voice is often not heard, of those wanting to rise above what is unsaid and to break above what is seen on the surface.