Director Guillmero del Toro arrived on the scene with gothic-inspired tales of horror and fantasy, the likes of Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone made genre fans sit up and take notice. It was then 2006’s Pans Labyrinth which captured the imagination of millions of cinema goers with the brutal and striking tale of young Ofelia, a girl who finds an eerie, mysterious world beneath the backdrop of the early Francoist era in 1944.
With his new film, The Shape of Water, del Toro moves to 1960’s Cold War America to tell the tale of mute caretaker Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and her captivating world after she befriends an Amphibian Man (Doug Jones), who’s being experimented on in a secure government laboratory in Baltimore. If you’re aware of del Toro’s work, then you’ll know to leave your ‘every day’ world at the door because this is an exploration into the edge of a reality beyond your expectations and, more than that, it’s an utterly beautiful, engaging and moving story.
Our lead character Elisa, exquisitely played by Sally Hawkins, lives above a movie theatre, is mute and uses sign language to communicate with those around her. Her cat-loving neighbour, Giles (Richard Jenkins), is an illustrator and they try to support each other in a place where they both struggle. Elisa’s other friend is co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), an out-spoken but hard-working woman who helps Elisa clock-in on time when she’s running late and literally does the talking for the both of them, although the viewer is aided with subtitles for Elisa’s signing.
Elisa is portrayed as relatively independent despite being isolated by not being able to talk. That being said, it’s clear she’s searching for a deeper connection with someone and, quite unusually, this happens when a creature captured by Michael Shannon’s Colonel Strickland arrives at her work place. After cleaning up after a nasty accident, she’s alone with this mysterious Amphibian Man and they bond over eggs and sign language. Even if it appears odd to the outside, to Elisa it’s a welcome fascination and before long they’re spending secret time together.
Without giving more away, as you want The Shape of Water to unravel before your eyes, Hawkins’ performance is exceptional and she’s mesmerising from start to finish. The film is a collaborative celebration of differences, desires and hard decisions in a time where paranoia was ripe and unequal opportunity was still very present. This makes the film smarter than most because while del Toro delights in dragging us away from reality, he keeps a string attached to real-life and just above you. Shannon’s extreme, and terrifying, Colonel is the example of this because whilst obviously racist and sexist, the film never hides its distaste for such views, and that’s very significant for the heart of the story.
The Shape of Water is also an interesting balance between sweet story-telling, in a classic cinema sense, and an old-fashioned love story but with that del Toro edge of the violent unknown lurking underneath. Once again, as in Pan’s Labyrinth, he doesn’t disguise the consequences of violence and it’s never glorified. In the short moments it occurs, it feels uncomfortable and drowned in pain, like it should, but never to the extreme you can’t watch but enough to remind you of its real effects.
It’s also a lot of fun, with a great black comedy edge and features great performances from the cast. Doug Jones may be ‘just’ the creature but he’s absolutely exemplary in his field, Richard Jenkins represents the innocence and charm and is full of spirit when it’s needed, Octavia’s Zelda is solid and gives an important balance to Sally’s Elisa. It’s also great to see Michael Stuhlbarg on form again, who’s fast moving towards being one of the most underrated character actors out there. All these elements eventually highlight the best of humanity to decide what’s right and what’s wrong, and you always believe they’ll make the right choices.
The Shape of Water is a magical, fantastical mix of genres, with a definite dark comic thriller edge, with a truly outstanding performance from Sally Hawkins who steals the show alongside Doug Jones’ Amphibian Man. It’s the perfect escapism for right now and quite exquisitely realised by del Toro and his fantastic team.
The Shape of Water opens on 14 February across the UK from Fox Searchlight
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