The Shape of Water, 2017.
Directed by Guillermo del Toro.
Starring Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Doug Jones and Michael Stuhlbarg.
Set in cold-war era Baltimore, The Shape of Water focuses on an isolated, mute woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins), who works as a janitor at a confidential government facility. For the most part, Elisa’s existence is depressingly mundane and deeply unfulfilling. She lives in a crummy apparent, has no family to speak of and repeats the same humdrum routine everyday. All of this changes however, when a tightly-wound government agent (Michael Shannon) delivers a new ”asset” to the lab, one that is mysteriously encased within a sturdy water container. Although the project is initially shrouded in secrecy, Elisa’s curiosity soon gets the better of her and she discovers that the resident of the tank is actually an amphibious humanoid (played by Doug Jones). A series of clandestine encounters follow, during which Elisa develops an affinity for the abused monster and comes to realise that he is both intelligent and empathetic. She subsequently enlists her lonely neighbour (Richard Jenkins) to assist her in a mission to liberate the creature.
Guillermo del Toro is responsible for some of the most enthralling films of the 21st century, but until now, he only had one legitimate masterpiece under his belt. That is of course Pan’s Labyrinth; a truly remarkable accomplishment, overflowing with mesmerising imagery, compelling storytelling and some of the most arresting sequences in all of cinema.
Released to critical acclaim in 2006, this magnificent tour de force was praised for simultaneously excelling as a creatively rich fantasy and as a darkly vivid war movie, with neither half of the experience feeling compromised by the other. Having said that, it also established a rather daunting standard for its director to maintain, one that he has struggled to match ever since. Whilst his later offerings have admittedly all been entertaining, they have never quite reached the same delirious heights. Which is perfectly understandable. After all, most filmmakers would be lucky if they got to do one Pan’s Labyrinth, never mind several.
Yet lo and behold, the deranged genius has somehow pulled it off again, with The Shape of Water emerging as another breathtaking triumph. Beautifully conceived, immaculately constructed and rife with unfettered emotion, this is certainly the closest that del Toro has ever come to equaling his magus opus. By pooling together his various strengths into one stunning package, the director is sure to delight his fans, along with the unconverted too.
Indeed, perhaps more so than with any of his previous efforts, this has the potential to achieve broad mainstream appeal, something which has puzzlingly alluded the Mexican auteur throughout his formidable career. For whatever reason, his spectacular imagination and wholly original style has never caught on in the same way that, say, Tim Burton’s has (outside of critics and genre enthusiasts that is). In fact, even his supposed blockbusters have gone somewhat under the radar.
Thankfully, this is all set to change with his latest offering, especially if the surprising awards success is anything to go by. After all, it’s essentially a crowd-pleasing love story, with a small injection of fantasy for good measure. Think of it as a contemporary version of Beauty & the Beast, albeit with more gory dismemberment and occasional allusions to fish penis. The fact that the central relationship concerns a savage aquatic beast that gnaws the heads off cats might be a tad discouraging for some (I guess it’s not as appealing as a cuddly Dan Stevens), but even the most ardent of sceptics will be won over by the time the credits role, owing to the sincerity of the performances and the tenderness of the directing.
Equally, the importance of the astute screenwriting cannot be overstated, as it does a great job of explaining Elisa’s unusual bond with the creature. The script goes to great lengths to articulate what it is that she sees in him, what common ground they share, and why she is so willing to throw everything away just to help him. Which is vital, because this could have been a fatal stumbling block for the film. Think about it, if the audience cannot understand the foundations of this bizarre romance, then why should they go along with it in the first place? That you do understand and do go along with it all is a testament to just how masterfully del Toro and his co-writer (Vanessa Taylor) develop the pair’s relationship.
This same thoughtfulness applies to every character in the film, with some of the most minor players getting comprehensive motivations and intricate personalities. Indeed, it’s hard to recall the last time that a film juggled this many characters and yet still managed to define them all so clearly. Everyone is extraordinarily detailed and well fleshed out, with their own domestic problems, their own weaknesses and their own histories.
It has even been alleged that del Toro wrote 40 pages of backstory for each cast member, which they could then choose to either incorporate into their work, or jettison entirely. What’s most impressive about this is just how much of it seems to have made it onto the screen. There’s a palpable sense that everyone is more than just a supporting role in someone else’s story. Instead, they’re real people with real lives.
As for the cast, they all bring their A-Game. Sally Hawkins obviously deserves a lot of praise, as she presents the audience with a character that is consistently relatable, even when she is considering boning a scaly fish man. Rising to the challenge of playing a woman who is not only mute, but also relatively subdued and timid, Hawkins has to make the most of every gesture and movement that she is permitted. Thus, it is an unshowy performance, characterised by subtle facial expressions and minute changes in body language. Nevertheless, she is allowed a few moments to showcase her considerable talents, most notably when delivering a silent-monologue in the 2nd act. Never before has sign language seemed so impassioned and captivating.
Everyone else puts in incredible work too; from Richard Jenkins, who supplies a welcome dose of levity and pathos, to Michael Stuhlbarg as a conflicted scientist with a hidden agenda. Debatably the most impressive performance comes from the often underutilised Michael Shannon. Capitalising on his trademark intensity, the actor is finally given the opportunity to give it his all. And he is every bit as intimidating as you would imagine. Despite this, his Strickland is also strangely wretched and insecure, constantly trying to prove himself so that he can fill an ambiguous void in his life. It’s a refined performance; at once frightening, despicable and curiously sad.
And what of the much-discussed monster? The whole film is ostensibly resting on his shoulders, so how does he hold up? Well for one thing, it’s Doug Jones under the makeup, so there’s a degree of quality assurance there. Moreover, the performer is assisted by some truly phenomenal VFX, which goes a long way towards making the fishman feel real. Indeed, rather than choosing between exclusively CGI or exclusively practical methods, del Toro has shrewdly opted for a full body prosthetic, which he then seamlessly augments with finite instances of digital manipulation. When done poorly, this kind of approach can draw attention to itself. Here however, it allows for the best of both worlds, as you get a tangible physical presence from Jones, but also the kind of facial nuances that are only attainable with the aid of computers. Most importantly though, it’s all so convincing that you just stop thinking about it after a while.
As is to be expected from del Toro, the entire production is a visual marvel, with certain flourishes lingering in the mind for days (an extreme close up on a raindrop as it travels across a bus window springs to mind). It also helps that he has a real intuition for assembling a team that are capable of comprehending his extraordinary visions. No where is that more apparent than in the gorgeous production design, or Dan Laustsen’s graceful cinematography. Meanwhile, Alexandre Desplat provides the perfect musical accompaniment to the hypnotic images, with a tranquil score that is refreshingly melodic by modern standards.
Overall, The Shape of Water is a tremendously crafted ode to the transcendental power of love. It is a powerful celebration of human compassion, devotion and optimism. At the same time, it also happens to be a funny comedy, an uplifting drama, a somewhat scary horror flick, an incredibly weird fantasy, and towards its final act, an outstandingly tense thriller.
From now on, del Toro’s movies are going to have live up to two masterpieces.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★