As Oscars season draws ever closer, there is one film in particular that surpasses all others in terms of the sheer volume of nominations and glowing praise that precede it. This film comes in the form of Guillermo del Toro’s dark fantasy romance, The Shape of Water. The widely talked about picture is nominated for a plethora of awards, and after having been spellbound by the ingenuity, exceptional filmmaking and attention to detail exhibited by del Toro and his cast and crew, I can certainly see why. Settling on the familiar and much-loved fairytale territory that most of his work operates within, the film manages to court all the wholesome and uplifting aspects we would expect from this formula, without falling into the pitfalls lesser films might have have succumbed to.
Set in a slightly off-kilter version of the 1960s Cold War era, The Shape of Water stars the vastly underrated Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a cleaner in a scientific laboratory facility who happens to be mute. She resides with her best friend, Giles (Richard Jenkins), who finds himself equally ostracised, lonely and out-of-place in the world due to his repressed sexuality which is explored somewhat in a small, delicately-woven subplot which hugely enriches both his character and the film’s backdrop, without merging into obvious tropes or clichés. Elisa’s best friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) also carries her own sadness in the form of her lonely, unfulfilling marriage. This core theme of loneliness is beautifully enhanced by the 1960s pastiche created by the film’s striking visual composition, comprised of lustrous blues and greens which create a surreal oceanic feel, whilst also harking back to the darkness and weight of Cold War fear and inter-governmental tensions.
Out of this idea of alienation and isolation stems Elisa’s chance encounter with a mysterious aquatic amphibian creature (Doug Jones), being held captive in the lab for the purpose of brutal testing and investigation. As she strikes up an unconventional bond with this creature, they begin to fall in love with one another, which leads to panic as she learns of the government’s unpalatable plans for him. Spearheading this ruthless onslaught is Michael Shannon’s Richard Strickland, the film’s menacing and multi-faceted villain. He is perhaps the best example of del Toro’s ability to write convincing and layered characters by exploring both their own personal subplots as well as littering the film with numerous visual cues which hint at the greater picture, tone and motivation that undercut these characters’ lives.
Sally Hawkins herself is effervescent in this role, bringing to it a rhythm and a theatricality of movement which is enhanced by the limitations of her mute character. Every step and flourish feels planned and considered, giving the film a musicality and whimsy that evokes notions of classic Hollywood cinema. Her kind face and quiet, knowing presence is not dissimilar to that of Audrey Tatou’s Amélie, as she nurtures those around her and attempts to find her place in a harsh and unforgiving world. As the creature learns to communicate with Elisa via sign language and the pair’s connection blossoms, any shred of doubt the viewer may have in terms of the strange nature of the relationship melts away as they are enveloped by the purity and beauty of their love. Alexandre Desplat’s wondrously beguiling score provides the perfect base from which this love to blossom.
The Shape of Water is perhaps Guillermo del Toro’s best work since 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth, brimming with the same raw creativity, tactility and sense of wonder as the latter, and bringing a gentle and soul-cleansing romance to this year’s awards season which appears to have won over hordes of viewers. The polarity in the film’s reception stems from the unorthodox nature of its central romance, but irrespective of how far people are prepared to go with the film’s artistic license, del Toro has undoubtedly crafted a visually-sublime, tonally intoxicating fairytale; one that will pique the interest of cinephiles and aspiring filmmakers for years to come.