Guillermo del Toro is man out of time. You can imagine him working comfortably in the Universal backlots in the 1930’s, alongside James Whale, building lofty magnificent sets and packing them with incredible actors; producing heartfelt and beautiful creature features. His best films, The Devil’s Backbone, and Pan’s Labyrinth map fairy-tales to gory Spanish war dramas, finding the most innocent person within a story of monsters, and telling their story. Many of his American films, from Pacific Rim to Crimson Peak, have to some extent eschewed this style, instead looking to Daphne Du Maurier, King Kong and Godzilla for inspiration, delving into the well of classic cinema and gothic literature that he grew up with. In many ways, all of the films he has made are about his own childhood. Some, like his triptych of Mexican films, do it overtly, confronting the violence and horror that the real world showed him, whereas others seem to try to capture the spirit of escapism that movies and novels provided him. “I have made nine movies, and all of them are adult rephrasing’s of my childhood,” he told The Hollywood Reporter back in November, and it’s becoming clearer, film by film, that that’s true.
It is most fascinating then to see him make a film like The Shape of Water, which is arguably not only his best English language film, but also the only one that manages, like Pan’s Labyrinth, to combine those fantastic fairy-tale elements with the horrors of the real world.
The real world in this case is late 1960’s America. In the midst of the Cold War, a mute cleaner, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), working for a government scientific research facility, discovers and bonds with a strange sea creature (another perfect creature performance from del Toro alumni Doug Jones). When she discovers that the US intend to dissect it to learn more of its origins, she plots to free it with the help of her neighbour (Richard Jenkins) and her co-worker (Octavia Spencer, channelling her terrific performance in Hidden Figures).
Despite the Cold War backdrop, and a story that explores Russian spy networks, torture, Mad Men-esque advertising firms, and the dark heart of the American Dream, The Shape of Water is a gorgeous romantic film that has as much in common with Amelie as it does The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The relationship between Elisa and the creature (who is never named) is never once played for laughs and feels more genuine and touching than most on-screen romances from the past decade. That both main characters of the film cannot speak gives them a silent movie pairing, Sally Hawkins in particular stands out from almost every other cast member (she prepared for the role by researching Chaplin and Keaton, and that physicality comes through in her magnificent performance). This is a film about people looking for and finding the humanity in those who, at the time, were considered abnormal.
Del Toro’s love of outsiders is never more explicit than here. His central characters are all removed from society in some way; Elisa is mute, her neighbour gay, and her co-worker black at a time when segregation was still rife. Their view of the world, shaped by how they are treated by others helps them to empathise with the creature where no one else would. In any other film, the main character and hero would likely be Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). He is the one with the perfect family, the brand new Cadillac. The company man who ventured into the depths of South America to capture the creature. However, in del Toro’s world, Strickland is the one losing his humanity, both psychologically, and, in several of the film’s most stomach churning scenes, literally.
The Shape of Water is a perfect Hollywood movie. It is beautiful and romantic; it calls back to the beginning of cinema with its silent protagonists, moving through Universal monster movies of the 30’s, technicolour studio productions of the 50’s, paranoid Cold War thrillers, to Spielberg-esque wonder. That it does all of this whilst never feeling showy, without a single moment out of place, is a testament to del Toro’s incredible direction and writing. The Shape of Water is the perfect del Toro film, finding a fairy-tale at the heart of violence, as well as honouring his love of classic cinema.
Adding to the technicolour atmosphere is an adherence to practical effects. Doug Jones’ creature is a masterclass in makeup and costuming, and his balletic movements in water, as well as his emoting out of it bring the character to life in ways that CGI could never hope to. Likewise, the film takes place across only a small number of locations, all built as sets and lit with Powell and Pressburger reds and blues. Even when water starts filling rooms, cascading from ceilings, and bursting through doors, this remains a blissfully CGI-free experience, and is all the more engaging for it.
The Shape of Water is brilliant in every single aspect, and del Toro a director with a better understanding of what makes us love monsters and monster movies than almost any other director working today. One can easily see him alongside those filmmakers of the 30’s, gleefully tinkering away on the set of Frankenstein, gluing another bolt to Boris Karloff’s neck, and doing it with the utmost love.
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