The Shape of Water (2017) Words
Visionary director Guillermo del Toro delivers his most emotionally rewarding and visually arresting film since Pan's Labyrinth, serving up a thrilling adult fairy tale of two outsiders who save each other from isolation and despair, before ultimately falling in love. This love story's USP? The leading man is a fantastical amphibious-man akin to the Creature from the Black Lagoon, making for a 'Silent Beauty and the Sea Beast'.
At the heart of the film is a luminous Sally Hawkins, an Oscar nominee for Blue Jasmine, who here plays Elisa, a mute night janitor at a secret government laboratory in Cold War era America. We learn that Elisa survived a vicious attack as a child which left her throat scarred and her voice forever gone. She now lives a life of careful routine – boiling es, shoe shopping, mopping floors and fervent masturbation (this is not a fairy tale for the whole family). Sidelined into silence, her days pass by in loneliness. That is until one dark night when her life is turned upside down by the arrival of 'the Asset', the films "monstrous" amphibious male lead, played beautifully by Del Toro's go-to creature collaborator Doug Jones (Hellboy, Pan's Labyrinth, Crimson Peak). This being a fairy tale, of course the true monster of the film is Michael Shannon, as the menacing Colonel Strickland, the Asset's captor and torturer.
Elisa's only allies are her neighbour, a loveable gay artist, with a passion for movie musicals (Richard Jenkins); her ever-protective co-worker (Octavia Spencer) who fills their nights with a constant stream of chatter and observation; and a sympathetic scientist with a dangerous secret (Michael Stuhlbarg). Set in a time rife with intolerance, the films only weakness is its lack of depth in exploring the social critiques of sexuality, gender and race surrounding these characters. Although wonderfully acted by all three, they serve mostly as tokens of "otherness" and to facilitate the Assets escape and our lover's inevitable union.
Hawkins and Jones are to be commended for their tenderly emotive, wordless performances which are both engaging and delightful. Almost entirely articulated through Hawkin's expressive eyes and considered choreography, a sort of pantomime; their rich performances are elevated by Paul D. Austerberry's gothic/steampunk production design and Alexandre Desplat's dreamy score. Del Toro's unique visual flourish is all over this, from its gorgeous sets, to its elegant colour palette, to the intricately rendered creature (He glows!).
Like most beloved fairy tales, this films various twists and turns go exactly where you expect them to go (perhaps only with more nudity and gore than expected), but none of that detracts from the strange and beautifully grown-up world Del Toro has lovingly crafted.
It doesn’t quite have the political resonance of Pan’s Labyrinth, it’s more of a political allegory about love and fear - an ode to classic cinema and creature features, combining a tragic love affair with a wonderfully retro style that packs a surprisingly emotional punch. Anchored by Hawkins heart-breaking performance, I have no doubts this will be a serious contender come Oscar time, with Ms. Hawkins a Best Actress frontrunner.