Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer
I am a sucker for modern fairy tales, and few people tell them so well as Mexican director Guillermo del Toro. An unashamed genre fan who gleefully cribs from folk tales and classic B-movies, he can be an uneven film-maker, but on occasion – especially when working in his mother-tongue of Spanish – he can produce dark fantasies of astonishingly poetic vision. Case in point is his 2006 masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, a surreal gothic parable set during the Spanish Civil War that stands comfortably among the best films of my lifetime. Now, finally, he has an English-language film to stand proudly alongside it, and if the fantastic and fantastical The Shape of Water doesn’t quite match up to its illustrious forebear, this oddball romance remains an enchanting ode to society’s misfits and outcasts.
At its most basic level, The Shape of Water plays like a twist on the 1950s horror classic Creature from the Black Lagoon, wherein a group of scientists run afoul of a strange half-man-half-fish creature stalking the Amazon rainforest. Likewise in The Shape of Water, set in a 1960s America riven by Cold War paranoia, the American military has also discovered a piscine humanoid (played, beneath layers of makeup, by del Toro regular Doug Jones) in the jungles of South America. Believing that the creature’s unique biology holds the key to beating the Russians into space, the Americans cart it off to a top-security Baltimore lab for tests, overseen by brutal government goon Strickland (Michael Shannon).
I’m not competitive, I don’t want an intricate, beautiful thing destroyed!
Played by Michael Shannon with all the glorious malevolence of which the actor is capable, Strickland is the square from hell. He lives in the suburbs with his wife and two kids, drives a Cadillac (‘This is the car of the future and you strike me as a man on his way there!’ the salesman tells him in a brilliantly revealing scene), and enjoys duteous and (crucially) quiet missionary sex. He’s also got a predilection for torture and sexual harassment, complemented by a sideline in casual racism, sexism and classism. He’s all the forces of conservative repression rolled into a single person, a pure exemplification of the banal face of evil.
Arrayed against him is a rag-tag coalition led by Sally Hawkins’ Elisa, a cleaner at the lab. All the best fairy tale stories need a princess, and here an opening narration describes her as ‘a princess without a voice’. Elisa, you see, is mute, following a terrible incident in her childhood. As a result, she is accustomed to not being heard, an evocative heroine for an era where Hollywood is coming to grips with how it has ignored women for decades.
The natives in the Amazon worshipped it. Like a god. We need to take it apart, learn how it works.
Perhaps that’s why she finds a kindred spirit in the Creature, who is, after all, a fellow voiceless outcast and lonely heart. Sure, he might be a little scaly and yes, he does have a taste for cats and human fingers. But hey – at least he listens. It’s not long before Elisa is hatching a plot to help him escape, with the aid of her best (and only) friends: namely African-American fellow cleaner Zelda (played with perfect sassiness by Octavia Spencer, casting withering looks at all and sundry) and gay neighbour Giles (the ever-excellent Richard Jenkins). Like Elisa, the pair understands what it means to be looked down on in 1960s America, and it’s impossible not to cheer as this rebel alliance take on the establishment.
It’s hard to overstate just how lovely a performance Hawkins gives in The Shape of Water. Though essentially in a silent role, she is an expressive, ultra-engaging presence; her wordlessness does not translate into any loss of emotional intensity. Her bond with the Creature is a soulful, touching one, capped by a rather wonderful dance scene straight out of Hollywood’s Golden Age. And if their relationship is a surprisingly physical one, well, why not? After all, inter-species canoodling has long been a hallmark of fairy tales and myths, from the shape-shifting gods of Greek antiquity to more modern tales like The Frog Prince, Beauty and the Beast, and (perhaps most aptly) The Little Mermaid. Del Toro is just carrying on the tradition.
Yeah. That’s good. Keep that up. Lookin’ like you don’t know anything.
The Shape of Water is a film that deliberately defies definition. On the one hand, it’s an unashamed B-movie, with a fast-moving plot that offers up some old-fashioned thrills-and-spills aplenty (not least an enjoyably nutty sub-plot involving a Russian spy played by Michael Stuhlbarg) and, as is par for the course for del Toro, a few scenes of wince-inducing violence. But there’s a genuine artistry on display that elevates the film above other genre fare. As he did with Pan’s Labyrinth Del Toro makes wonderful use of colour to lend his world a slightly surreal edge (many scenes are lit with a dank green shade that calls to mind murky watery depths) and there’s a particularly entrancing shot of raindrops dancing across a bus window.
Only del Toro, a modern mythologiser par excellence, could have made a film like this – a truly peculiar beast pulled from a hodge-podge of cinema and folk influences as well as his own singular imagination – let alone made it so compelling and so universal. The Shape of Water is a brutal and often chilling work, and yet also sincere and heart-warming. And if in the end, it doesn’t quite match the sheer poetry of Pan’s Labyrinth, this fabulously magical fable remains one of the best films of the year. Audiences should dive right in.