Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is so many different, wonderful things, that it’s hard to know where to start when discussing it. It weaves together a bizarre but utterly sincere love story and proper B-movie gore and horror with a delicate ease, all the while adding in elements of Cold War paranoia and homages to the all-singing, all-dancing black and white musicals of pre-WW2 Hollywood. Inspired, profoundly affecting, and utterly original, it’s del Toro’s best English-language offering yet, even coming close to challenging Pan’s Labyrinth for the title of the Mexican auteur’s masterpiece.
It’s 1963, and the world is shuddering in anticipation of nuclear Armageddon, though you wouldn’t immediately know it upon your first introduction to our hero Elisa (Sally Hawkins). Her apartment is one of those classic del Toro designs, flawlessly thought out and completely real. Its comfort reaches out from behind the screen like a warm hug. Elisa works a night shift cleaning at the conspicuously named Occam’s Laboratory, a mysterious government science facility where the urgency of the Cold War is keenly felt. Visually brilliant (incredibly reminiscent of Rapture from the 2007 video game masterpiece Bioshock), Occam’s houses a series of experiments, the centrepiece of which is a Black Lagoon-esque creature (played by Doug Jones), whose unique physiology could hold the key to winning the Space Race.
This creature, known only as The Asset, is brutalised by the barbarically cruel Agent Strickland (Michael Shannon, adding another terrifying villain to his portfolio), but makes a gentler connection with Elisa. As a mute woman in 1960s America, she is used to being all but invisible, but The Asset is a perfect listener, swiftly picking up sign language and emotional cues to communicate. What starts out as a more nurturing relationship – Elisa brings The Asset snacks and plays him music as comfort after a day of invasive experiments – ends up taking a more romantic track.
Elisa and The Asset are the year’s oddest couple, yet the complete sincerity with which their relationship is portrayed bypasses any awkwardness in favour of infectiously earnest emotion. It’s joyously uplifting and often very funny, which only heightens the fear when the horror elements kick in. As is often the case with a del Toro fairytale, the humans are more savage than the monsters could ever hope to be, and Strickland makes for a highly intimidating baddie, willing to break his own fingers to sickeningly underline a threat.
The Asset himself is brilliantly realised, and though comparisons to Abe Sapien, del Toro’s other famous fish-man from his Hellboy adaptations, are inevitable, he really is his own creature. At some moments almost human, at others a wild beast, with interludes of proper otherworldliness, he’s hauntingly magical, and his chemistry with Elisa is always palpable. Jones is a master of his monster-playing craft now, and Hawkins is truly exceptional. She’s always been brilliant, but this role should by all rights propel her into proper stardom and place her right in the middle of 2017’s awards conversations.
Her entirely non-verbal performance is mesmerising, packed with depth, energy, and kindness, and to have an Oscar season fantasy film’s central story told in sign language is a uniquely exciting step forward. But that doesn’t mean that del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor have stepped away from the spoken word, with Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Richard Jenkins all given carefully layered lives, expressed through smart, understated writing and great acting. Spencer gets the most laughs as Elisa’s co-worker and friend Zelda, but behind her very funny monologues about her useless husband lies a pain and frustration that she works hard to hide. Female friendships are woefully underrepresented in mainstream film, but Elisa and Zelda’s is well drawn and touching.
It’s a relationship that dodges clichés entirely, which is a huge and consistent strength of The Shape of Water. Jenkins’ character, advert artist Giles, is quietly gay, and though this does make him lonely in ‘60s America, he’s not painted as either miserable or as a shining beacon for progressive values, as a lesser film would have done. He changes the channel every time he sees any hint of the Civil Rights struggle on the news, and though he’s not a reactionary, this implied worldview seeps into his decisions, incredibly reluctant as he is to help Elisa break The Asset out of the facility.
This heist is a thrilling and hilarious set piece, as a team consisting of two cleaners and an elderly artist befuddle Strickland’s security teams. They do receive some assistance from kindly scientist Hoffstetler (Stuhlbarg), who is more action-capable than he first appears, but they’re a far cry from the crack, ten-man squad of Soviets that Occam’s head of security assumes are carrying out the operation. Del Toro conjures some breathtaking imagery once The Asset is out in the world, none more striking than a swimming scene through a flooded apartment.
The Shape of Water’s musical influence gives every scene the feel of a dance, sweeping you along the film’s adventure like a bizarrely comforting riptide. It packs so much into two hours without ever feeling overstuffed or that certain elements have received too little attention. The world is rich and alluring, fantastical yet tangible, it will linger with you long after the credits roll, getting under your skin in both a disconcerting and gently warming way. It takes a rare talent to do both in a single film, and this is a visionary filmmaker at the very top of his game.