There’s been much anticipation for Guillermo del Toro’s latest feature. With a highly successful festival run (taking home best director and score at the illustrious Venice Film Festival), Oscar buzz, a much earlier US release date to rave reviews, one wonders how much salt to digest with The Shape of Water. The hype is justified; del Toro has crafted his best English feature, well on the same level of his early Spanish works – Devils Backbone and Pans Labyrinth. This is a beautifully shot and written romantic period piece.
Set in cold-war 1962 America the story is simple enough. The casting, dialogue and themes are anything but. Sally Hawkins is phenomenal in the starring role of Elisa, a mute janitor working in a military facility. Del Toro wrote the character with her specifically in mind describing her as the stranger on a bus with luminosity and an ethereal quality. It’s a perfect characterisation of her in this.
It’s a content but mundane existence until she is tasked with the upkeep of a secret new project. That project is the captivity of a strange amphibian beast. Captured within the Amazon by the villainous Michael Shannon, who runs the facility it’s now housed in. Revered as a god by the native Amazonians, the military views the creature as nothing more than an asset to learn from, possibly gaining an upper hand on the Ruskis. Elisa on the other hand, sees a kindred spirit in the amphibian man, making a deep connection with the only other sentient being she knows to be trapped without a voice.
Comparisons to Abe Sapien of the Hellboy adaption have been flatly denied by del Toro. Though it’s hard to ignore with the physical similiarities and both being played by the immensely talented Doug Jones. Links to the amphibious beast of Creature from the Black Lagoon are much more tantalising and revealing of the nature of the film.
Guillermo del Toro is the master of subversion. Not unlike many of the classic Universal monsters from the pre cold war era The ‘creature’ from the Black Lagoon was a beast to be feared and pitied for his lonely tragic demise and obsession with that films heroine. Shape of Water inverts the narrative portraying Michael Shannon’s character as the entity of power and monstrosity.
Guillermo del Toro manages to both romanticise and criticize the period deftly. The set and props are intricate and sublime, containing wainscot paneling, wall paper, timber floors and ceilings, chrome finished luxury cars. Harking back to the idealised post war boom of perfect lawns and friendly neighbors, ie the period when classic monster movies flourished. It’s within the well crafted characters that del Toro exposes much of the myth of those times. Elisa’s neighbor the sensitive painter Giles (Richard Jenkins) is ostracized for the sexuality he has been forced to hide for a lifetime. Her best friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) is regularly mistreated for her skin colour. In one particularly devious moment Michael Shannon refers to Zelda and himself as humans crafted in the likeness of God, though her perhaps not so much.
The story, like the name is deeply poetic, an unusual and intimate love story. Complimenting that, is the score which pays tribute to the magical qualities of the black and white musical numbers of the 30’s, renowned composer Alexandre Desplat is to thank. The cinematography is likewise phenomenal, Dan Lausten creates a teal world of blue and green, tying together some important themes, while also meshing a Victorian gothic vibe with 60’s suburbia. The underwater sequences are works of art to be admired. It’s a complete film that works resoundingly on every level.
The Shape of Water is in cinemas from 18th January through 20th Century Fox.