Del Toro’s timeless masterpiece is a delight in every way.
If you were to give a quick summary of The Shape of Water‘s plot, one would be forgiven for thinking it was some sort of niche, fetish porn. But only Guillermo Del Toro, injecting the elegance and magic last seen in his 2006 classic, Pan’s Labyrinth, could make it so much more. This is not only the writer-director’s greatest work – it’s a film for the ages, an inspired piece of fantastical storytelling, with a maestro finally given the chance to be truly free at the helm.
Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute janitor in a 1962 Baltimore scientific research facility, lives quietly. She gets up, masturbates in the bath – in perfect timing for her eggs boiling – and goes to work on the bus. Things change when the facility acquires a humanoid, amphibious creature, being violently studied by the threatening Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon). As Elisa continues to mop floors, she develops a forbidden bond with the specimen.
What’s incredible is that Del Toro effortlessly, through gentle sign language, Benny Goodman records, and the gift of hard boiled eggs, makes the relationship with this imposing creature perfectly plausible. Let’s get things straight; it’s far from platonic, but an idea which could easily be written off as a crude fantasy, is in reality more emotionally engrossing than many modern love stories. Doug Jones, underneath the marvellous make-up, remarkably puts believable spirit into the scaly beast, certainly putting the human in ‘humanoid’.
Loyally by his side is Elisa, played stunningly in a career-best, Oscar-worthy performance by Hawkins. Despite the fact she’s near silent for the film’s entirety, through facial expressions and impassioned hand gestures, her emotions scream louder than words ever could. The pair’s uncharted love never feels unnatural, rather, their chemistry is tender and palpable (as is normally the case between soulmates).
It’s a film empowered by a pitch-perfect ensemble cast, no matter how small the role. Octavia Spencer, as cleaning compadre Zelda, is the soulful counterpart to Elisa’s deafening silence. Richard Jenkins is charmingly flamboyant in his role as Giles, Elisa’s neighbour and best friend.
Michael Shannon, an on-the-surface menacing presence, has another memorable villain to add to his repertoire – a nasty, bullying incarnation of Cold War paranoia, with a kink for silence and a hunger for power. As a character, it could have verged on silly if it weren’t for Shannon’s ability the capture a role. Del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor use Strickland to show the male power dynamics of the time; a scene in which he tells Zelda that God probably looks more like him than her, exemplifies this further.
Opening with an impressive, dreamy tracking shot of an apartment submerged in ocean blue water, furniture poetically floating around, it’s a sign of the wonders to come. But the film is many different things in one. It’s a timely Cold War thriller, with the mysterious creature hinted at being of critical use in the space race. There’s clear inspirations from classic monster B-movies such as Creature from the Black Lagoon. It’s also a love-letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood, with an overwhelmingly powerful, unexpected musical number late on that captures the spirit of cinema gone by. But at its core, this is a simple love story about finding that one person that makes you complete, no matter what the cost – a theme every single one of us can invest in.
It’s also achingly gorgeous, and perhaps the greenest movie ever made. Every scene’s beauty is undeniable, steeped in nostalgic 60’s colour and design that brings the film to life in memorable fashion. Del Toro, working alongside cinematographer Dan Laustsen, create sequences that will be posted online in short gifs or pictures for years to come, whether it’s Elisa’s dancing with a mop in the facility, Perdition-esque monsoons, or heartwarming, underwater embraces between the leading couple.
Alexandre Desplat’s enchanting, spellbinding score complements the beauty, intensity, violent encounters and embraces throughout this complete masterwork. A dramatic, gorgeous parable on forbidden love and acceptance, with the strangeness of a B-movie horror and the swooning delights of a fairy tale, Del Toro’s magnum opus demands repeat viewings, destined to sit among the greats.