Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg and Doug Jones
Plot: A mute cleaning lady (Hakwins) works in a military lab where she forms a passionate friendship with the amphibian creature (Jones) they are experimenting on.
The easiest way to separate the great directors from the good directors is to look at their filmography and recognise who made it simply from the feel of their movies. This is definitely the case of Del Toro’s movies. When Guillermo Del Toro makes a passion project, rather than catering to the Hollywood vehicle (it is probably best not to count Pacific Rim as a touchstone of the director’s career), his movies are undeniably him, no other director living or dead able to recreate his particular brand of surrealistic fantasy. It is the way reality and a dreamland meet in the middle and create a wonderful explosion of warmth, usually surrounded by a particularly dreary and grim narrative.
That description segues nicely into what Shape of the Water is actually about. It charts the friendship, and later unlikely romance, between a woman and a newly-discovered species (it is never made clear the Creature’s origins). While the story around them is Del Toro’s usual concoction of endless misery, whenever the pair of them are together on-screen, the film finds a unique happy place. The fleeting moments where Sally Hawkins steals a few minutes of her shift, sharing an egg or a dance with this strange creature are the film’s strongest beats, parts of the film where a big cheesy grin is allowed to stretch over your face. It is to Del Toro’s credit that the shock of a woman and a fish creature having a love story dies down quickly and feels very natural fast. They both have an adorable zest for life, despite their humbling situation, that makes them the couple you want to root for. One scene in particular where Sally Hawkins’ heroine, mute from birth, breaks into song in her own imagination. It is a wonderful insight into the beating heart deep down within the character that is bursting to break free, if only the situation would let it. Hawkins is an absolute delight here, easily the best role the actress has ever got her hands on. She plays Elisa very tired and exhausted, yet there is a hardness to the character. At first sight, she might look like the unlikely hero of the story, but as you get to know Elisa, it is hard to picture anyone who could more likely step up to the plate in this manner. She has a big heart, is naturally kind and her weakness is rarely a weakness. In fact, at some parts of the story, as she taunts Michael Shannon’s nasty head of security (Shannon adds another top notch baddie to his growing list), directly to his face, without him being able to know about it, it is closer to a strength. This is a movie filled with wonderful moments like this and, when the warm glow of critic season fades and Shape of the Water is left to fight the test of time alone, it deserves more than being remembered as the film where a girl falls in love with a fish. It doesn’t even really deserve to be lumped in with the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ inspired movies. This is a deeply moving story that, while perhaps doesn’t break any new, exciting ground, does totally repaint the ground it finds itself on, breaking boundaries and rethinking about the way love stories should be approached.
If you did have to compare the Shape of the Water to anything, the film did come across like a story that acclaimed feminist novelist Angela Carter might have cooked up if she was around today. The hero is almost lazily stereotypical Carter: a female character from a lowly background that everyone assumes is an oppressed non-entity, but who uses her natural strength to take on her male oppressors. Her counterpart in this love story is a distorted male figure, in this case an amphibian beast, and her only male friend is homosexual, therefore removing the male gaze from her path. Michael Shannon’s villain is also a very Carter antagonist, a male wrapped up in his own self-worth, who uses the vapid consumeristic culture around him to bulk up his power, especially as his status (and fingers) start escaping him. One beautifully creepy beat sees his character refuse to let his wife talk during sex and start growing attracted to Elisa, because he fantasies about a woman without a voice. If anything, Del Toro writes it in a smoother way, so, while Carter might have beat the audience around the head with her opinions from the first scene, Del Toro lets it slide into his story naturally. The points Del Toro make only become clear a day later, while you are pottering around your own house. There is a wonderful moment where the realisation that Elisa finds sexual relief from under the water before she even meets the Creature hits you halfway through a cup of tea. It feels like a finely-crafted jigsaw puzzle, where each angle of the film compliments itself. While the critics are salivating over the bigger and more obvious successes of the film, such as the great prosthetic work of Doug Jones’ creature or the hauntingly mesmerising cinematography, it is the smaller, impressive beats that are quietly holding the film together. A well-written scene can make the entire cinema go quiet and the set design is remarkable. Del Toro has one shot where a water droplet moves across a window that deserves a Best Picture award all by itself. While the OSCARs are usually filled with films that try to throw off a loving audience and appeal to a niche crowd, such as the controversial Three Billboards, with Shape of the Water, it is very hard not to like this film.
Final Verdict: When you have films like Pan’s Labyrinth to your belt, it is risky to call Shape of Water the best Del Toro. However, Shape of Water is very probably the best Del Toro.