I have no idea what general audiences will think of Del Toro’s newest monster movie, but I loved it.
A mute woman working as a cleaner inside an American government laboratory encounters a wondrous creature they have captured. But her blossoming feelings for the captive cause her anguish as ruthless authorities want to experiment on the creature.
It has been soooo long in the waiting. Or at least it feels like it. Director Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water was released back in December of 2017 and has remained as nebulous as its title evokes as this reviewer has desperately avoided spoilers and opinions… you know… asides from it being nominated for thirteen Academy Awards, seven Golden Globes (which it won two, including Best Director) and eleven BAFTA awards. So as a fan of Del Toro’s work, and especially his collaborations with actor Doug Jones… yeah, yeah the hype was monumental.
In this state it is dangerous to become too objective, for fear of being a raving fanboy. But The Shape of Water is easily Del Toro’s best film in recent memory. I would argue Pan’s Labyrinth is still my favourite for all the subtly woven into its very essence, but this movie is gorgeous.
Whatever Del Toro turns his attention toward, you know it is going to be a visual feast for the eyes, but more than that… The man has a bizarre quirkiness that is in full force here. This film has almost everything, somehow perfectly paced and edited into a two hour runtime. There’s humour, there’s slice-of-life realness, there’s a monster, there’s a broad spectrum of sexuality, there’s gore, violence and espionage and government plots. Absolutely… stuffed to the gills, you could say.
Sally Hawkins (recently in the two Paddington movies) plays Elisa, a woman working a menial day job, living alone and unable to speak, her only friend is a neighour who draws illustrations for advertisements. It is clear that Del Toro is telling a story of misfits, those who have never experienced the limelight and have tolerated their lot in life. The sets are lavishly details and wonderfully retro (the film takes place at an undisclosed time, but within the 1950s) becoming completely immersive within moments.
Hawkins does a tremendous job. This is a very emotion-filled performance to give without being able to speak, and she delivers many great moments throughout the film. Her adversary, the always bankable Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals) is as vile and detestable as Sergi López was in Pan’s Labyrinth. The whole supporting cast too, do a remarkable job, from Octavia Spencer (The Help) to Richard Jenkins.
Del Toro doesn’t shy away from his usual hallmarks though. Very quickly we see a bloodied, distorted visual of Shannon’s character Richard Strickland, cradling a bloody stump of a hand after an encounter with the creature. The film balances horror and romance incredibly well, far better than Del Toro’s earlier Crimson Peak, which could be considered a trial run for this film. If it is, the benefits have been surely reaped.
But it is the look and feel of the film that I enjoyed the most. The soundtrack is gorgeous, the set designs are painstakingly detailed and deliberate; such as the laboratory’s headquarters having a mosaic design all around the room, like fish scales. Elisa’s apartment being above a cinema isn’t the only thing that speaks volumes about Del Toro’s love of film, I am sure there are tonnes of references I have yet to pick up on. The film’s cinematography and colouring is beautiful; everything from lighting to props are a rich and dark collage of greens and blues, with Elisa wearing more and more red as the film progresses, visually pulling her out of her mediocre world. To say Doug Jones does an excellent job as the creature is like saying water is… well, wet.
I’d like to say there’s a lot here for audiences to enjoy, Del Toro has struck a very fine line in delivering his macabre sensibilities with a more gentle touch, giving us a weird but wonderful mix of mature romance, fantasy and monsters.
Additional Marshmallows: An original film like a classic movie. It is okay to say The Shape of Water is like Beauty and the Beast, it totally is like it. But what isn’t okay is making Beauty and the Beast again and act like its something new. We need more directors like Guillermo Del Toro!