Part fairytale, part period thriller, part science fiction, part romance, you could go on describing the many parts that make up Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. Its open for interpretation as well as easy to see it as a simple story about two beings who fall in love and those who would tear them apart. Above all, it is something to marvel.
It is 1962, in a city by the sea and Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute, works nights as a cleaner at a government facility. She leads a quiet life, has a daily routine working with her friend Zelda and enjoys music, film and pies with her neighbour, Giles. One day, she encounters the top secret ‘the asset’ (Doug Jones) in one of the labs. ‘The asset’ is an amphibious humanoid creature the government hope to use in their space race. The vicious Colonel Richard Strickland is put in charge of security of ‘the asset’ and Dr Hoffstetler is responsible for its care and research into what it is. Over time Elisa and ‘the asset’ become closer, sharing a bond, communicating through movement and sign language. But when the government wants to kill and dissect the creature, Elisa and her friends work together to save him all the while with Strickland breathing down their necks.
As the film is set in 1962, social context also seems to loom large. Discrimination, communism and of course the government’s obsession with getting into space before the Russians is commented on. Zelda, played by the ever-brilliant Octavia Spencer, is victim of racist remarks and actions. Giles, played by the also brilliant Richard Genkins, is fired from his job because he is gay and at one point subjected to humiliation. There are also moments showing the ‘monster’, Strickland, going home to his stereotypical white picket fence home, with his housewife and two children, completely unaware of what he does for a living.
For those who are familiar with del Toro’s work will immediately recognize the immaculate and intricate design of the film as it carries similar traits from his previous films. But where substance was placed lower in quality in such films as Crimson Peak, The Shape of Water has both a great story and is beautifully laid out. The usual monster element that appears in all del Toro’s films is literally at the center of the story. But the ‘real’ monster is not the one kept in a laboratory and swims around a tank each day.
Similar to del Toro’s previous films, there is a fairytale like quality to the stories and how they are presented. The Shape of Water begins practically with a ‘once upon a time…’ narration and ends on the same note, bookending the film. The unlikely pairing of a lonely woman and an amphibious ‘male’ creature finding each other and at all costs fight to stay together is actually really romantic. They don’t care what the other is; they just love each other for who they are.
Just like the beautifully illustrated poster for the film, there is a strangeness that intrigues rather than recoils. Even though there is a ‘monster’ present and revealed early on, this is no monster movie. This is a elegantly portrayed love story set against a shifting background that leaves you wanting to see more happy endings.
Dir: Guillermo del Toro
Pr: Guillermo del Toro, J. Miles Dale
Scr: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg
Music: Alexandre Desplat
DoP: Dan Laustsen
Running time: 123 minutes