Guillermo del Toro has delivered a gorgeous fantasy-drama for adults with The Shape of Water, a film that brings to mind the stunning balance of wonder, heart and harshness of the filmmaker’s 2006 masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth. Does it top that film? Not quite, but that’s a ridiculously high bar, and this swims oh-so very close.
Sally Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito, a lonely, mute woman who works as a custodian in a government lab. She leads a simple, routine life, watching television, listening to the rambles of her colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and spending time with her kind-hearted gay neighbour, Giles (Richard Jenkins). And she has a healthy libido, masturbating in the mornings as her eggs come to a boil. As mentioned, this fairy tale’s for adults, with a frankness in the way it deals with not only violence, but sexuality as well.
Elisa’s life takes a turn when she encounters an amphibian creature that’s been captured in South America and brought in chains to the lab. Visiting it in secret, she soon finds herself forming a strong bond with the creature; a bond that comes under threat from Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), a detestable Colonel that sees this amphibian man as something that must be prodded, studied and destroyed.
The filmmaker has said that the seeds for the film were planted when he was around six years old, around the time he saw 1954’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The classic monster film’s influence is easy to see, from the creature-in-love narrative to the creature itself, here a truly wondrous creation. From the beautiful underwater opening, it’s clear from the get-go that del Toro has put his all into every element of his passion project.
Using various cinematic tools at his disposal, del Toro has crafted a film that, much like 2016’s highly lauded La La Land, aims for a classic Hollywood feel, and as a result feels timeless. Working with a wonderfully on-point creative team, including production designer Paul D. Austerberry (30 Days of Night), art director Nigel Churcher (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Ant-Man), and set designers Jeffrey A. Melvin & Shane Vieau (Crimson Peak), the film quickly establishes a signature visual look for its depiction of 1960’s Baltimore. All manner of green is on offer, beautifully using various shades and tones to dress the sets (of which there are only a handful).
Special shout-outs must also go to cinematographer Dan Laustsen (Crimson Peak, John Wick: Chapter 2) and the talented, hard-working composer that is Alexandre Desplat (The King’s Speech, The Grand Budapest Hotel), the latter of whom provides the film with a lovingly rendered score that this writer has been whistling since.
The film is, as if I haven’t been clear, technically brilliant, but it’s on paper where the greatness is initially birthed. Del Toro’s screenplay, co-written with Vanessa Taylor (Game of Thrones), is unabashedly romantic, although there’s a level of sadness to it as ruminations touch on racism, loneliness, and getting old. The script can, on occasion, be a touch heavy handed, but the intentions are generally so sincere that it’s easy to let it all wash over you.
A qualm, albeit slight, can be found with the final act, which doesn’t approach and unfold with too much surprise – even if the emotion is strong. The marketing certainly has a lot to blame, leaving us awaiting the more action-heavy section of the narrative, which is far on the tail end of the proceedings and is over relatively quickly.
The performances are fantastic, with Jenkins, Spencer and the always-reliable Michael Stuhlbarg (in a nice role as a scientist) all in top form. Michael Shannon gives one of his best villain turns here, injecting the surprisingly layered Strickland with as much frustration and internal hatred as he can muster. The character also has a nice bit of body horror to work with, and Shannon gleefully puts it to good use.
Hawkins is the star though, and she’s absolutely brilliant. In what may be her best-ever performance, Hawkins gives us a beautifully realised character, a woman with an aching, lonely soul, who still finds positivity in life, dancing down the hall after watching a musical. What’s more, it’s without speaking a word; her expressive eyes, a sly smile, her sign language speaking volumes. She carries some of the film’s most tender moments; “When he looks at me, he does not know – how – I am incomplete. He sees me… as I am,” she signs, breaking our hearts.
The merman is a beautiful creation. A mix of utterly convincing make-up and costume design, amplified with CG elements, Amphibian Man feels completely real. Actor Doug Jones – who played The Faun and Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth and visually-related aquatic character Abe Sapien in del Toro’s Hellboy films – emotes a ton with small twitches and ticks, giving us essential depth to a creature we basically need to back to get the girl. It’s essential that we believe Elisa’s unfolding relationship with him, and that we do… deeply.
What on paper may read almost ridiculous in conception is brought to the screen with confidence and a determination to make the audience feel. Without wanting to spoil anything, there’s a certain black and white sequence that should feel laughable and downright silly, but ends up being one of the film’s most touching. And that speaks to the sincerity, gusto and craftsmanship that del Toro and his team have brought to this heartfelt adult fairy tale. Take a breath, dive in, and enjoy some very fine cinema.
THE REEL SCORE: 9/10