Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writer: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg
After seeing The Shape of Water, I am convinced that del Toro possesses genius. His films have such a strong visual and emotional palpability to them. Even 2013’s Pacific Rim, an otherwise-passable Kaiju-Jaeger movie, is imbued with such heart, innocence and playfulness. His 2006 masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth was his last great piece of work, though – and despite the perfected charisma of 2008’s Hellboy II, he since hasn’t seemed to reach such heights as his work in the late 90s and early 2000s. Thankfully, The Shape of Water is great, and a very worthy addition to his filmography: a standalone, character-driven piece of dark fantasy that is dour yet wondrous – and, after 2015’s Crimson Peak, it seems that he is on the verge of hitting another stride.
The film tells a love story that connects Eliza, a mute woman who works as a cleaner in the Occam Aerospace Research Center, and a man-like amphibian creature (Doug Jones, with incredible makeup by del Toro’s team) housed in this same facility. Caught in between is co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and Eliza’s neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), as well as scientist Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) and government agent Strickland (Michael Shannon). Hoffstetler wants to study the creature using language and mutual understanding, while Strickland demands vivisection and learning through suffering. Eliza bonds with the amphibian man and starts to teach him to communicate; she feels comfortable with him, for he does not judge her on her disability (he has no concept of such things) – proceedings events are best left unspoiled. These characters are not subtle, but function effectively within an adult fairytale world that’s created and sustained in a way that is impressively contained and consistently thoughtful.
The film’s greatest asset is the visuals; The Shape of Water is the most visually beautiful film I have seen in quite some time, and a treat to lay eyes upon. Dan Laustsen’s camerawork is graceful, controlled and quiet; it dips and meanders through various scenes’ carefully controlled visuals, revealing obscured elements slowly and in movements that provoke wondrous excitement. It is playful, but reserved. I can’t quite express just how gorgeous it is. As we drift through handsome production designs from Paul D. Austerberry, we feel a part of the world, with Alexandre Desplat’s nostalgic score twinkling and swooning to build an unmitigated sense of wonder. So many scenes in the film are lovingly constructed in this way, executed with such precise finesse that you can only sit and grin as you watch the film’s anatomy meticulously unravel.
The performances here are great. Already mentioned is Hawkins, who brings to life a refreshingly optimistic protagonist with endlessly expressive eyes, and Zelda, who is portrayed by Octavia Spencer, charming as ever. The stand-out here is Michael Shannon, who makes the character of Strickland a pathetic, walked-over outcast desperately grasping for control, venting his insecurities and lack of dominance through the torturing of an innocent creature. A lesser actor would have portrayed Strickland as over-the-top, irredeemably evil and silly, but Shannon goes far beyond the script and proves once again to be a master of bringing subtlety to a character that is largely archetypal.
The film does not try to comment on any profound ideas. What we have is quite simply a film about place, belonging, and the monsters in all of us, and that faintly raises questions about human nature. Indeed, what precisely is a ‘monster’? Some may find the lack of a sole, clear, contemplative message frustrating, but I did not find it detrimental to the overall feeling of the piece; del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor interweave enough substance within each subplot for the audience to feel rewarded through the development of the characters, and leave plenty of room for themes that are explored through their arcs to be thought about after the credits roll. The questions raised are faint, but this is not the focus of the film.
Incredibly, the romance works, and exceedingly so. We believe in the core relationship, and the forming of a bond beyond language, despite afflictions or even the difference in species. The creature does not, and cannot, judge Eliza on her condition. She feels she is seen as herself, not limited by her inability to speak. We understand how she projects herself onto the creature and how he seems to complete her. While there is much melodrama, the film is not bogged down in gratuitous sop; the heartfelt, loving moments are carefully placed, balancing self-referential light humour with dark themes and imagery quite effectively, and, amazingly, avoiding any jarring tonal shifts. Set against a Cold War backdrop, there are lavish throwbacks to 50s Hollywood – through visual sequences and through the score – that help the period-piece elements to feel complete, and make the story feel sweeping in its approach to love.
Unfortunately, repeated unnecessary subtitling serves to take the audience out of the film for just a few moments, which is a shame for a movie so otherwise immersive. There are themes touched upon but left unexplored and dangling, leaving an unsatisfying feeling when del Toro tries to bring the aforementioned themes back around to assist a payoff. As well as this, the silly and “I’m-not-too-sure-about-that” ending left somewhat of a sour note (though the events that take place could be perceived as ambiguous).
As the main theme’s delightful melody is reprised in a harmonic arrangement of strings, though, it is difficult not to feel moved. The film is most certainly dark, and, in places, unforgiving, with gut-wrenching moments, but del Toro’s evident knack for visual texture blends beautifully with a stirring and surprisingly humane story about love beyond language and finding one’s place that is drenched in inky wonder. While the film is not profound, or indeed as good as Pan’s Labyrinth, it is gorgeous, and smattered in del Toro weirdness. It’s really lovely.