The Shape of Water
In Cinemas Now
Sally Hawkins (Paddington) leads this Golden Globe-winning, other-worldly fairy tale from Pan's Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro, set in Cold War America.
Rounding out the cast are Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man) and Doug Jones (Pan's Labyrinth). In the hidden high-security government laboratory where she works, lonely Elisa (Hawkins) is trapped in a life of silence and isolation. Elisa’s life is changed forever when she and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures) discover a secret classified experiment.
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Best Director & Original Score, Golden Globes 2018
- Guillermo del Toro('Pan's Labyrinth', 'Hellboy', 'Pacific Rim')
Drama, Fantasy, Thriller, Romance
Rating: R16 Violence, horror, sex scenes & offensive language
In many ways The Shape of Water is a classic Guillermo Del Toro film. All the director’s hallmarks are present: it’s a fable, it’s set against a socio-political backdrop, and it’s about a monster.
That first point is worth bearing in mind. Del Toro’s films are always larger than life, and while that can work against him (Pacific Rim was too silly for many), here the broad tone helps offset the edginess of the material. And things get pretty damn edgy.
That’s where Del Toro seems to be trying something new. He’s always had a taste for cinematic violence, but his films stayed pretty chaste until 2015’s Crimson Peak. That film seems to have whet (wet) his appetite for kink, and here he really runs (swims) with it.
This is a romance between two different species, one of them a fish-man imprisoned in a government laboratory. Del Toro never sugar coats the fact that the creature (beautifully performed by Doug Jones), is bestial, as likely to bite your fingers off as he is to wordlessly woo the cleaning lady.
Sally Hawkins plays the recipient of the mer-dude’s affections, a mute woman who takes care of her neighbour, an artist portrayed by Richard Jenkins. They are fantastic, as is the rest of the cast, all reliable heavy hitters.
Michael Shannon plays, as he often does, a bureaucrat whose buttoned-down exterior masks a complete maniac. Of all the story beats his is the broadest. No prizes for guessing who turns out to be the real monster here.
The film starts out with a level of whimsy comparable to Amelie, before delving into darker waters. Racism and homophobia begin to loom, and while the parallels Del Toro is drawing will be too clunky for some, the film’s huge heart and good intentions are always on display.
New York Times
TimeOut (New York)
The Guardian (UK)
Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water marks a welcome return to the dark, adult fairy-tale world of his masterful Pan’s Labyrinth. In a labyrinthine secret government lair, reminiscent of the BPRD in Del Toro’s Hellboy movies, two cleaners (Sally Hawkins as the mute Elisa, and Octavia Spencer as Zelda), witness the arrival of a strange humanoid merman, not a million miles removed from that classic 1950s B-movie, Creature from The Black Lagoon. They also witness the cruel treatment of the creature by head of security, Michael Shannon, here revisiting his brilliantly twisted role as Agent Van Alden in TV drama, Boardwalk Empire.
With the feel of an indie movie, this is a Beauty and the Beast tale of the underdog, in which beauty and morality are shown quite literally as skin deep. The majority of the outwardly attractive, wealthy, white, male, Western characters are rotten through-and-through, whilst their supposed “lessers” – the poor, the outcast, those of colour, the disabled, the all-but invisible cleaners - are shown as both capable of selfless heroism, and unconditional love.
Outwardly, the creature (played by Del Toro’s go-to creature actor Doug Jones) is a frightening monster, but when lonely, mute cleaner, Elisa, shows him kindness, feeding him boiled eggs, teaching him sign-language and playing him music, they fall not just in fairy story-style love, but an inter-species love of a passionate sexual nature.
With the help of fellow cleaner, Zelda, and her lonely, gay, artist friend (Richard Jenkins lending humour and heart to a role that could so easily have been a slight caricature), Elisa frees the “monster” from the real monster embodied by Michael Shannon’s suit-wearing sociopath, in a role reminiscent of Ralph Fiennes as Amon Göth in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List – a respectable, family man, kind to his children, loved by his wife, respected by his colleagues – and beneath the thin veneer of respectability, a total psycho.
With a score by Alexandre Desplat and cinematography initially reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie, Del Toro quickly shifts from an air of eccentric fantasy to a dark metaphor of the underbelly of the American dream. A nightmarish vision of a society where being coloured, gay, differently abled, female or poor renders you an outsider, unworthy of respect or even consideration as a “normal” human being.
The script, by Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor offers some light in the dark, with delightful humour and touching romance, and whilst the use of fairy-tale tropes means the narrative twists and revelations can be guessed oceans away, there’s enough going on to distract from the essential simplicity of a tale that emphasises water, time and surface appearance as central motifs throughout.
With cracking acting from a superb cast, and Del Toro’s directorial flourishes in service of a strong story, this is a beautiful film to look at and a powerful metaphorical tale.
After my disappointment with Crimson Peak and the enjoyable, but ultimately forgettable Pacific Rim, Del Toro is back in the land of the twisted fairy-tale and it’s a very welcome return indeed.