Colour me corrected. Previously I used to think of director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak) as primarily a visualist. Meaning that his films were spectacular to look at, but the stories were further down on the list. Mistake on my part. That was rammed home while I sat there watching his latest film, The Shape of Water, which he also co-wrote. It is a film filled with emotion, striking visuals, homage to films from eras gone, featuring a bright love of monsters, and strong acting performances.
The year is 1962 and the heart of our story takes place in an American high-security government laboratory. The lab is a place where Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins – Blue Jasmine, Paddington 2) and Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer – The Help, Hidden Figures) work as cleaners. Living a rather isolated life because she is mute, Elisa relies on Zelda to get her through things at work, including punching in on time, and her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins – Let Me In, Spotlight) for company.
As an outsider, it does not come as a total surprise when Elisa makes a connection with another creature who lives its life on the fringes. The head of security at the lab, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon – Revolutionary Road, Nocturnal Animals), captures and brings back a mysterious marine creature (Doug Jones – Hellboy, The Watch) to be analyzed, poked and prodded. When Elisa and Zelda are asked to clean the room after the creature tears off a couple of Strickland’s fingers, it affords Elisa the chance to see it. She is under its spell from first sight.
Every opportunity she can, Elisa sneaks into the secure room where the creature is being held and bonds with it over hard boiled eggs. Soon she realizes that it is not a monster, rather a being which can understand her and she can connect with. Once that connection is made, Elisa knows she has to get the creature out of there as it will be killed shortly. With the help of Zelda, Giles and, unexpectedly, scientist at the lab, Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg – from television’s Fargo), Elisa hatches a plan and carries it out. Not without Strickland in dogged pursuit.
All that del Toro accomplishes here is aided greatly by his talented ensemble cast. Off the top, the sublime Sally Hawkins turns in a nuanced and full of wonder performance. She utters not a word though is fully able to have her character communicate all she is thinking and feeling. It will most certainly earn her an Oscar nomination. Richard Jenkins turns in a less showy performance though it is just as filled with emotion and heartache. His is a character who must closet himself as the time he lives in does not approve of who he loves. Superior character actors Octavia Spencer and Michael Shannon both add depth to characters which in lesser hands could have been one dimensional.
Shockingly this film turns from a whimsical monster movie into a romance. No one could have predicted this as it just seems too far out there. Not only does it turn into a romance, but convincingly becomes a love story. A love story you find yourself cheering for and opening your heart to, despite the fact that it is between two not of the same species. The magic of film at its best. A strong allegory. Again props to Sally Hawkins as she is able to construct the love story and demonstrate her feelings just through her face and body language.
Though I have argued for the strength of the story here you cannot overlook the visuals. Not a surprise with a del Toro film. What jumps out immediately is the crispness of the picture and the brightness of the colours. Especially green. Loads of that colour to be found here. Some of the credit for how the picture looks has to be given to the film’s cinematographer, Dan Laustsen (John Wick: Chapter 2, Proud Mary), who manages to shoot the film that at the same time looks very modern as well as something from the past.
For me, del Toro should be in serious contention for the Best Director Oscar. Here is his best (most complete) film since Pan’s Labyrinth. It is a film that is very different from anything you will see this year. He has succeeded in creating another world in The Shape of Water. A world that has some similarities with ours though is magically offbeat. His vision is unique. His talent allows him to mash together film genres like monster, thriller, romance, and fantasy without things going off the rail. He is able to make a film that features a magical creature that lives in water which ends up not being the “monster”. Rather the head of security/army man is what is to be feared. Humans….humans are the monsters.
It is not an overstatement to say this is a wonderful film and one of the best of the year. Del Toro has upped his game here. He has not only made an adult fairy tale of a film that is a delight to see, but also one that is marvellous to experience. The story is up to the level of the visuals. Its story tugs at your heartstrings. Filled with palpable emotion along with commentary on racism, homophobia and fear of what is unknown. Go see this film and reward the Mexican director who is swimming against the Hollywood current by continuously making films that are completely original.