♦ Showing earlier this month at the London Film Festival, Tripwire’s Contributing Writer Stephen Dalton took a look at the latest Guillermo del Toro film, The Shape of Water…
The Shape of Water
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg
Guillermo del Toro fans: take a deep breath and relax. Following the blockbuster bombast of Pacific Rim and the misfiring gothic horror of Crimson Peak, the Mexican fantasy maestro has got his mojo back in grand style with The Shape of Water. Rooted in Cold War history, this sumptuous sci-fi romance is del Toro’s most richly satisfying and emotionally engaging adventure yarn since Pan’s Labyrinth. Indeed, in its key narrative elements and bittersweet tonal shading, it could almost be a sister film to that much-loved 2006 classic.
Del Toro frames the story in fable-like terms from the start, opening with a lyrical once-upon-a-time narration and a teasingly dreamlike underwater panorama. The setting is Baltimore in 1962, just as the nuclear brinkmanship between Kennedy’s America and Khrushchev’s Russia is heating up. But this context is woven with references to Greek mythology, folklore, and the heart-tugging escapism of vintage Hollywood musicals. There are echoes of Amelie, Forrest Gump and The Artist in the mix here, but thankfully all this fragrant whimsy comes with a healthy streak of sardonic humour and earthy humanity. Not many family-friendly fairy tales feature female masturbation and interspecies sex.
Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mute, lonely dreamer who communicates only in sign language and rueful facial expressions. She lives alone in a ramshackle apartment perched over a palatial Art Deco cinema. Elisa’s neurotic neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) is a struggling gay illustrator whose sexuality seems to have cost him his career, while her staunchest ally at work is Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a sassy motormouth who talks more than enough for both of them. All three are misfits in a stifling age of straight, white, all-American conformity. Three lost souls clinging together for comfort.
Elisa and Zelda work as lowly cleaners at a high-security U.S. military research facility. They are mostly invisible to their buttoned-down, buzzcut-haired, all-male scientist bosses, which means they sometimes get to witness some sensitive secrets. One day a cold-hearted, Machiavellian security agent called Strickland (Michael Shannon) arrives with a mysterious cargo, nicknamed The Asset, a humanoid amphibian creature captured in the Amazon and dragged to Baltimore to be tested as a potential Cold War weapon.
Played by del Toro’s regular rubber-limbed monster man Doug Jones, The Asset violently resists his captors, even tearing off two of Strickland’s fingers during a savage beating. But Elisa manages to build a fragile bond of friendship with her fellow fish-our-of-water, using sign language and smuggled food to win his trust. Before long, an unlikely romance develops between these two wordless outsiders: a love that literally cannot speak its name. Meanwhile, Russian spies take an interest in the captive creature just as Elisa, Zelda and Giles hatch an audacious kidnap scheme.
As we might expect from vintage del Toro, The Shape of Water is visually ravishing down to the smallest forensic detail. The ultimate genre-fan director cites Universal’s kitschy 1954 horror classic Creature from the Black Lagoon as a key inspiration for this film, and he pays overt homage in the Asset’s scaly, spiny, web-fingered form. The cavernous steel-and-concrete interior of the U.S. military facility where Elisa works also echoes those vast subterranean bunkers that the great Ken Adam once designed for numerous James Bond villains.
The Shape of Water is an artfully ambivalent love letter to the glorious Technicolor optimism of early 1960s America. Its gorgeous production design conjures up a rainbow-coloured utopia of gleaming chrome and boundless consumer choice even as its screenplay exposes the racist, sexist, homophobic culture beneath. Del Toro also punctuates the action with some gloriously outlandish set-pieces, including a tastefully handled underwater sex scene in a flooded bathroom and a jaw-droppingly funny monochrome song-and-dance number.
Del Toro strikes a few clumsy notes in this full-blooded audio-visual symphony. Much like Sergi Lopez in Pan’s Labyrinth, Shannon’s performance as the sadistic Strickland feels too cartoonishly evil, leaving no room for nuance or complexity. Some of the plot gyrations in the final act also feel transparently engineered purely for maximum dramatic tension. And a belated twist that appears to bestow magical healing powers on The Asset veers a little too close to sappy Spielbergian territory.
But minor niggles aside, The Shape of Water is a richly rewarding experience on all levels. It is a glowing testament to Hawkins that she covers the full emotional spectrum without speaking a single word. Meanwhile, Spencer is enormous fun in her most scene-stealing, screen-hogging role to date. The screenplay, co-written by Games of Thrones regular Vanessa Taylor, is witty and poignant and sprinkled with poetic flourishes. Visual effects are slick and dazzling but sparingly deployed, never swamping the story’s essential humanity.
Most gratifyingly, del Toro has found his confident authorial voice again, blending together timeless romance, social commentary, retro homage, dark comedy and genre-friendly thrills into arguably the finest film of his career so far, and certainly the most universally enjoyable. The Shape of Water opens in the UK next February, just in time for the Academy Awards. Start placing your Oscar bets now.