Guillermo del Toro pulls off the improbably and makes us fall for a fishman in his achingly beautiful story of forbidden love.
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon
Runtime: 123 mins
Release date: 14 February 2018
Like Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (and, come to think of it, The Devil’s Backbone), The Shape of Water is a fairy tale. But, unlike the director’s other flights of fantasy, this is a decidedly more adult affair. The Shape of Water is a fairy tale for grown-ups, a fleetingly erotic, sometimes violent story of forbidden love. It is also one of the most staggeringly beautiful pieces of cinema I’ve had the privilege of watching.
Our heroine, our “princess without a voice” as the opening narration puts it, is Elisa Esposito, played a terrific Sally Hawkins. Elisa is mute, having been found abandoned as a baby with scars on her neck where her voice box was removed. Unable to speak, Elisa’s face becomes an emotional canvas. Elisa is shy and reserved, but through her expressions we can see that she hides a spirited and sensual soul. Hawkins’ brilliant performance reminds us just how much acting lazily relies on dialogue, and how important and revealing a tool the face can be.
Elisa’s silence is made up for by her friends. She lives above a movie theatre, next door to Giles (Richard Jenkins), artist and closet homosexual who natters endlessly on history, philosophy, and old films. Every night, Elisa gets a bus to work as a cleaner at an aerospace research laboratory with Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who natters endlessly about her no-good husband.
The facility at which Elisa works receives a new “asset”, brought in by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Shannon’s Strickland is a seething villain, a racist, sexist, ableist alpha male. The asset is a fishman, an amphibian humanoid – think a more bestial Abe Sapien. With the Cold War dragging on in the background, Strickland wants to dissect the asset to stay one step ahead of the Ruskies. Elsa, invisible as just one of the help, strikes up a weird rapport with the creature, sharing eggs and music with him.
And so The Shape of Water becomes, improbably, a romance between a mute woman and a fishman. It’s a concept that sounds absurd on paper, a bottom-tier, trashy B-movie. In the hands of del Toro, however, it becomes a touching, beautiful love story.
The fishman is portrayed by frequent del Toro collaborator Doug Jones (Mimic‘s Long Johns, the aforementioned Abe Sapien, Pan’s Labyrinth‘s Faun and Pale Man). Jones sells the hell out of the creature, and is aided by some truly incredible make-up. The creature is essentially a romantic lead, but del Toro and Jones do not romanticise him. He’s still a dangerous, alien being; he’s just in love with a mute woman.
Dangerous and alien he may be, but del Toro pulls off the impressive feat of really getting us to empathise with him and his relationship with Elisa. The Shape of Water is full of aquatic motifs: scale-patterned wallpaper, a duck-shaped shoe brush, baths, pools, and rain. The cinematography, by Dan Laustsen, is gorgeous. His camera is in constant, languid motion, as if floating in water, and the film is full of marine greens and blues. Alexandre Desplat’s wonderful score completes the aquatic engagement, brimming with instruments and sounds that appear to come to us from underwater.
Desplat’s music also combines elements of classic Hollywood scores, and a few motifs borrowed from the kind of monster movies that clearly influenced The Shape of Water. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this film is just how well it works. It’s a Frankenstein’s creation of influences and references: the monster B-movie (especially The Creature from the Black Lagoon, of which this is a sort of reversal), Hollywood musicals, Cold War thrillers, tales of forbidden love. It should be a complete mess, but del Toro, that master blender of genres, somehow creates a beautiful piece of cinema out of all these elements.
Just as Elisa fell for a fishman, I am deeply, madly in love with this film. There are messages here, about toxic masculinity, about the power that can lie dormant in minorities (our heroes are, after all, a disabled woman, a black woman, and a gay man). The film engages on an intellectual level. But, more than any other del Toro film, it engages on an emotional level too. The Shape of Water is a genuinely touching, deeply poignant, ravishingly beautiful fairy tale romance. I bloody love it.