Do you like monster movies? How about films about outcasts? Perhaps cold war thrillers are more your bag or maybe it’s a fun caper film that hits you in the sweet spot. If any of those genres intrigue you then Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a must-see because not only is it all of those things but it’s also at its heart one of the best films I’ve seen about love and friendship.
One of the things I love about going to see a Guillermo del Toro movie is that you can never be sure if he’s going to give us a big action spectacle like Hellboy or Pacific Rim or a gothic faerie tale like Pan’s Labyrinth or Crimson Peak. In the case of The Shape of Water, it is a bit harder to characterize because though its romance aspect is definitely in the faerie tale area there is a lot more going on in this movie.
The story follows the adventures of this sweet mute woman Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) who along with her friend Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) work as a janitor at a secret government facility in the early 1960s, a place that probably has you sign nine nondisclosure agreements and prefer that you don’t mind cleaning up after torture. One day evil government agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) arrives with a new “asset” that he obtained (i.e. captured) and tortured in South America. This man is a violent intruder into this world and is a counterpoint to our heroine as a key element of this film is the feeling of being ostracized. Elisa is mute while Zelda is an African American and they are both women in the 60s, and then there is Elisa’s next-door neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) who is a closeted gay man, and all this makes her become attached to a being that is possibly the loneliest creature she has ever met feel absolutely natural.
To say this film is beautiful would be a gross understatement as del Toro and cinematographer Dan Laustsen has not only created a visionary colour palette, they easily use every shade of green out there and then invented some more, but they also managed to turn the bleak world of the 1960s into a place where you could believe a magical love story between a humanoid amphibian and a woman was not only possible but darn right necessary.
I always wondered what the Gill Man from Universal’s Creature of the Black Lagoon saw in Julie Adams, sure she was a very beautiful woman but would busty brunettes be something a creature with scales would find attractive? On the other hand in The Shape of Water, the relationship that develops between the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) and this sweet but sexually mature woman seems completely natural.
It’s the silent love story between these two lonely souls that makes the film such a beautiful and lyrical fairy tale but one cannot overlook the fantastic supporting cast with Octavia Spence and Richard Jenkins doing their best to steal any scene they are in with Jenkins’ random non-sequiturs being a particular highlight, “Cornflakes were created to stop masturbation. It didn’t work” and the two of them bring much of the humour to balance out some of the film’s dark moments. The other stand-out character would be Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) the one scientist in the facility who finds the Amphibian Man to be a wondrous being that maybe shouldn’t be vivisected so that America can gain an edge in the Space Race. It’s of course Michael Shannon’s repressed and angry government villain that is pro-vivisection and thus we get our third act “caper” portion that is somehow both believable and preposterous at the same time.
The film’s “faerie tale feel” let’s slide such questionable elements that in another film may have bothered me, such as why a creature from the freshwater rivers of South America would need a saltwater tank or the feasibility and structural integrity of flooded bathrooms, and thus I didn’t have the same problems that I felt harmed del Toro’s previous outing Crimson Peak even though it too had an equally heightened reality but its basic story structure was weak and was harmed by less than believable characters. While on the other hand the cast of characters of The Shape of Water never once felt less than authentic no matter what bizarre events were unfolding.
The Shape of Water (2017)
With The Shape of Water Guillermo del Toro gives us a hauntingly beautiful tale of love and friendship that will not only visually captivate you but also steal your heart away.