The Shape of Water (2017/18)
Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Screenwriter: Guillermo Del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones
The latest picture from famed fantasy-horror director Guillermo Del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone – 2001; Hellboy – 2004; Pan’s Labyrinth – 2006) is a beautifully crafted whimsical fairy tale reminiscent of old-fashioned monster-movies; a timeless classic from a filmmaker presenting the most earnest and poetic work of his career. The Shape of Water is a must-see piece of cinema that will engulf your senses and gently squeeze beauty, acceptance and love into your heart.
Del Toro’s typical deconstruction of what we ordinarily view as monstrous, and the mirror he places in front of us as regards it, is an authorial stamp that exists once again at the centre of his latest work. In The Shape of Water the typically monstrous is represented by an unknown salt-water creature discovered by the US during the peak of the Cold War, a time in which its discovery becomes an exercise in how to best exploit it for military and space-programme purposes. The slimy, screeching, human-like being, which is treated aggressively as a rule by the scientists and military members, forms a relationship with central protagonist Elisa (Hawkins), a cleaner for the facility in which the creature is kept and a person whom comes to identify with the “monster” due to her similarly as outcast societal position as a mute, working class female in early 1960s America. What ensues is a tale of boundless love that Del Toro uses to explore the very nature of prejudice and our ideas of monstrousness, a film which works on every level to tear down the walls we build as societies to separate the mythical “us” from “them”.
It is in this exploration that lies the true beauty of Del Toro’s work: its intentionally all-encompassing presentation of prejudice – a formula that is so often reinforcing of its central idea of deconstructing what we view as monstrous, unnatural, wrong, that it allows for your own input, your own identifiers, a means through which to feel for the film through your own experiences of prejudice brought from outside of the story he’s so elegantly presenting. The Shape of Water can be read as a film about sexual empowerment for the female gender or a critique on the losses in science during the cold war brought about due to the pursuit of bettering the opposition. It can also be viewed as a critique on masculinity, homophobia, artistry, racism and/or sexism, identifiers for which are placed as regular story beats in the picture’s dense script. It is fitting, then, that the lead character is mute, and thus someone who is easier to project your own thoughts and feelings onto; a presence that actively leads the narrative yet doesn’t say a spoken word and is therefore more susceptible to being read in all manner of ways. Whether you take the stance that it’s a critique of racism, sexism, masculinity, femininity or etc., the picture still works, and connects, because the very purpose is to discourage prejudices (of which no two of us ever share the same experiences). Del Toro masterfully walks the narrative through all of this in a central story arc that by itself is already a tale of fantasy melodrama worthy of investment, a story of honour and romance in an increasingly aggressive world filled with evermore difficult situations.
The Shape of Water as a technical achievement is noteworthy too, with the most urgent of praise being reserved for the movie’s wonderful use of light. Aside from some obvious lighting changes that occur at stand-out and very distinct moments of the screenplay which require a greater suspension of disbelief, The Shape of Water takes a powerful but often more subtle approach to light and shadow that often distinguishes tone and is so beautifully shot, and intricately thought out, that it looks like it’s come straight out of a black and white film of the classic Hollywood era. The movie is also coloured with the same richness that Del Toro features throughout his ouevre, a presentation style that can remove one from the story but in this case works only to enhance the beauty of the cinematography and drive home the picture’s overall magical quality.
The score works in a similarly as effective way, building on the magic of what’s in the scene with a whimsical tone more accurate of the screenplay’s central narrative, connecting the two in a seamless and non-invasive manner. It too is reminiscent of classic Hollywood, using wind instruments to dictate dread and becoming more melodic at times of incredible happiness or pleasure, but always feeling like the true sound of a fairy tale novel from a time we can’t quite recognise as our own.
The Shape of Water’s casting is an aspect of the film that is without fault. Lead actress Sally Hawkins provides a sterling performance despite being unable to use her voice to convey emotion, and her nervous portrayal and petite frame make her a great source of empathy, while Michael Shannon’s towering aggression and typically psychopathic glares made for an excellent antagonist whose characteristics were emphasised by some very clever shot choices. He in particular seems to have fully committed to the role, providing an edge and severity in his delivery that penetrated through to even the most casual of dialogue exchanges. Octavia Spencer also provided a typically nuanced performance as Elisa’s best friend, working to the highest standard in scenes alongside Shannon, while Richard Jenkins was somewhat of a standout as the friendly neighbour of Elisa whose own suffering as a closeted gay man brings about his own connection to the creature and is performed with the utmost respect. Inside the creature was Doug Jones, whose part-animal, part-juvenile physical actions brought great sympathy for the character in spite of sharing the lead’s same inability to verbally communicate; his performance was one that may be forgotten amongst the movie’s many great elements and performances but should be considered vitally important and impressive all the same due to how quickly the film could have fallen apart without a performance of such quality.
In many ways, The Shape of Water is Del Toro’s most personal film; a love-letter to the cinema that he’s openly discussed as having saved his life in his youth; a presentation of how film can provide hope, optimism and magic in times of great need (both for the characters in the film and for those of us watching his). It is perhaps this element of his fairy tale that shall sit with you the longest; a brief moment of true escape from an increasingly threatening world, your very own sea creature. It is what makes this film timely and relevant as well as poignant, beautiful and poetic. Guillermo Del Toro has created a gem of modern fantasy cinema, a source of great empathy and artistic quality that it is simply the best work of his established career; a great movie.