The Shape of Water, 2017.
Directed by Guillermo del Toro.
Starring Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg, Nick Searcy, and David Hewlett.
Mute orphan Elisa lives her life on the edges in Baltimore in 1962, until her job working nights as a cleaner at a secret US government facility brings her into contact with an ‘asset’ being held in a water tank.
Influenced by Hollywood classics – most certainly The Creature from the Black Lagoon – alongside flavours of Beauty and the Beast and the whimsical Amélie, The Shape of Water is a time-honoured love story of the misunderstood monster and tragic heroine. With its dreamy but bittersweet tone, there’s a sensation of watching with a weight on your chest, so easy is it to invest in the purity of the relationship between mute cleaner Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and the imprisoned Amphibian Man (del Toro regular Doug Jones). As expected in a Guillermo del Toro film, however, there are moments of both humour and horror (of course!) that provide swift tonal changes and kick up the pace of a film that occasionally lingers for slightly too long.
The Shape of Water is an undoubtedly stylish and visually stunning film. The flair of del Toro is evident in the shabby glamour of the film’s 1960s period setting, as well as the rather romantic decision to have Elisa live above a cinema, which contrasts well with clinical, stringent feel of the government facility where she works nights as a cleaner. It’s also an effective decision to have the picture’s palette heavy on murky but beautiful greens. There’s also that trademark del Toro gore to enjoy still – if you’re particularly attached to your digits or cats, there are a few watch-through-the-fingers moments.
As quite a particular type and style of film in its magical realism, The Shape of Water could feel a little indulgent to some. You’ll either revel in its world of dreamy but faded charm with nods to so many film favourites, or find it not really to your taste – especially if you’re less than a fan of whimsy. Elisa and her neighbour Giles’ (Richard Jenkins) reliance on TV allows for plenty of nods to cinematic classics, such as Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson tap dancing (which they beguilingly recreate), Carmen Miranda appearing on the soundtrack and a full-blown Fred and Ginger moment mid-film – but that’s the magic of the movies, and since when has Guillermo del Toro ever gone in much for realism or sticking to one genre? Alexandre Desplat’s music is very fitting for The Shape of Water and its setting’s affectations – it sometimes overpowers the narrative slightly, but only in a similarly stylised way to its backdrop.
With a cast lead by Hawkins and including Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon and Michael Stuhlbarg, the acting is as superb as expected. Del Toro has mentioned in interviews his decision to cast performers who acted through their eyes, and that is more than evident here. The characters on the page, however, are a little thin – mute, tragic heroine; predatory, crazy man; misunderstood monster; sassy black friend who’s the voice of reason, equally lonely gay neighbor; undercover KGB Russian agent (who meets with his fellow operatives after a show of convoluted passwords). The cast chew through what they have, though. Sally Hawkins emits sadness so well, gorgeously frail and never needing words. It’s cat-nip for the Oscars. Someone who didn’t tempt the Academy into a nomination (a travesty, given the other three performance ones handed out to this film) is Michael Shannon, who takes on a role reminiscent of his mainstream breakthrough as pious Agent Van Alden in Boardwalk Empire – he is surely the safest pair of hands for your repressed, deranged man in Hollywood. Richard Jenkins as Giles is also really excellent, flawed but kind, and you feel for him in his loneliness. In a year without Sam Rockwell (or Willem Dafoe…), he would be the safest bet to convert his nomination into an award. Stuhlbarg has less to do than others, but carries out the role of conflicted academic (with under-explained motives) with aplomb. It’s also worth noting that this marks his third appearance in an Oscar nominated film this year alone, after his role sin Call Me by Your Name and The Post: impressive stuff. Guillermo del Toro’s go-to monster man, Doug Jones, is – obviously – a natural as the creature, gifted as he is with physical performance. Hawkins may have no voice, but Jones doesn’t even have much of his own face/eyes on show with which to act! Under strict instructions from del Toro, Jones is also rendered more so a weirdly sexy leading man than a monster – the special effects are well-judged.
Ultimately, The Shape of Water is certainly worthy of acclaim for its bold imagination, design and straddling of genres, as well as a heavy-weight cast, but it’s perhaps more conventional than people might expect: an established love story ‘twist’, Russian spies, American Cold War paranoia and an obsessive villain are hardly notions that haven’t been seen before. Del Toro’s love for cinema, however, and his leading couple, shines through and is hard to dismiss.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★