This latest installment from Mexico’s Gothic master Guillermo Del Toro is a thing of true beauty. Del Toro has long stood in my mind as one of modern cinema’s great heroes, championing classic film storylines and longstanding traditions in a masterful way. He fuses fairy-tale wonder and brutal realism in a completely singular and brilliant way. Since his true breakout masterpiece Pans Labyrinth (2006) I have always looked forward to seeing what his macabre mind could create. With The Shape of Water I truly think he has come close to recapturing the magic and brilliance he mustered in Pans Labyrinth, a film which is at once childlike and brutally honest and mature.
The story follows Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a mute cleaner at a highly secret government facility who is perfectly happy with her routine. She lives above a cinema with her disgruntled neighbour come best friend Giles, a struggling advertisement artist and spends most of her days working and her nights eating and resting.
This intolerance is brought into stark relief for Elisa when an ‘asset’ is brought to the facility in which she works. This ‘asset’ is accompanied by a model of upstanding 50s republicanism embodied by the ever brilliant Michael Shannon as the heavy hand of the decades morality Richard Strickland. He is a man who is obsessed by the status quo, drenched in protestant reasoning and staunch conservative ideals. Shannon thunders into Elisa’s innocuous world and remains a towering force of aggression and conservatism that the film plays with beautifully. Elisa is immediately drawn to the ‘asset’ and soon discovers this is not some object, rather a form of aquatic life the like no human has ever seen. Strickland believes the thing to be an abomination whilst Elisa see’s the humanity and the parallels between her and it and soon becomes wrapped up in an obsession that can only escalate for her.
What this film really excels at is creating a world in which you are drawn completely into, within minutes of the opening scene I knew that I was going to enjoy myself in Elisa’s world. I feel that a huge part of this is the stellar turn by Sally Hawkins who once again proves herself as one of the most underrated actresses out there. With the character unable to talk Hawkins pulls on every trick in her arsenal and uses each second she is on-screen to talk through her motions, past just the sign language. Every smile or furrow of the brow you feel is completely heartfelt and emotionally relevant to the character. Hawkins and her portrayal of Elisa is the vital beating heart of the film, a quietly powerful anchor upon which the film hangs its story.
To return to the narrative of the film, there is a huge figure I have only hinted at briefly. The ‘asset’ itself. This creature cuts a similar figure to Abe Sapien from Del Toro’s Hellboy (2004) films if he didn’t have the wisecracks or a voice at all. Del Toro is clearly thinking back to this character, along with his love for HP Lovecraft’s similar creations. However Doug Jones as the creature is much more subtle than either of these influences suggest. In order for the audience to care for the creature as much as Elisa does we must believe in the humanity behind the scaly facade and the lightness of touch with which Del Toro demonstrates in the two outcasts interactions makes for a really beautiful sequence of encounters. This is a film of movement and feeling rather than straight ahead speech, the two main figures work in such a physical way you are reminded of silent film stars and the ways in which they would have to use their full body to express their own characters.
As is to be expected with such a high concept story and with Del Toro at the helm the production design is sure to sweep the technical awards categories at the Oscars with every scene clearly mapped out to perfectly reflect the fantastical tone of the film. Del Toro seems to take influence from a broad palate, however I was particularly reminded of the overlooked French curio Micmacs (2009, Dir. Jean Pierre Jeunet) which shares both thematic nods to The Shape of Water as well as visual echoes in it lighting and general imaginative sepia toned and expressionistic set design. Del Toro creates a film world which is full of nightmares and darkness but we as the audience are on board wholeheartedly due to the strength of the dreams he realises on-screen. The Shape of Water is his best since Pans Labyrinth by a country mile and is something I will treasure for a long time.
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