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The Shape of Water (2017) directed by Guillermo del Toro

Half man, half amphibian

This fantasy set in the USA in the 1960s features Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito, a mute adult orphan who lives with her adoptive father, an advertising art designer named Giles (Richard Jenkins) above a cinema. She works as a cleaner at a government research facility with her colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer).

One day, the pair observe a secret consignment being brought into one of the lab cells at the behest of the mysterious Strickland (Michael Shannon). The next day, an incident occurs whereby Strickland emerges from the cell covered in blood with two fingers missing. Elisa and Zelda are called in to clean up the mess. However, curiosity gets the better of Elisa, who decides to examine the consignment more closely - a mysterious half-man, half-amphibian (played by Doug Jones under heavy prosthetics) who lives in a water tank.

Elisa becomes increasingly beguiled with this creature and begins sneaking in to visit it day after day. She starts to gain its trust and they form an unspoken bond. One day, however, she overhears Strickland ordering the scientist working with the creature (named Dr. Hoffstetler, played by Michael Stuhlbarg) to kill it. Understandably upset about this, Elisa persuades Giles to help mount a rescue mission.

Watch a trailer:

A heartfelt fantasy

Guillermo del Toro’s homage to Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon is a clear labour of love. This is evident right from the breathtaking opening tracking shot which prowls through a flooded living room to the serenely becalmed body of a submerged woman. It’s a tantalising puzzle piece of a scene whose significance is forgotten about until all becomes plain at the film’s conclusion. It’s the visual beauty, genuinely heartfelt storytelling and little snippets of mystery here which more than make up for what, at its core, is a fairly predictable girl-meets-monster saga.

The onscreen world that del Toro conjures up here is both an absolutely spot-on affectionate homage to both 1960s all-American kitsch and the atmospheric old B-movies which characterised both that decade and the two adjacent ones. Cheesy, brightly-coloured advertisements meet pastel-shaded Cadillacs, the laboratory is a blend of forebodingly bleak machinery and sinister green lighting and the amphibian man creation eschews CGI for good old-fashioned (but superbly executed) prosthetics. The style is arguably closest in feel to the video game Bioshock and Dario Argento’s Inferno. There is also a distinctive nod to the whimsical feel of the films of Jeunet & Caro via the homages to old musicals (including a spectacular B & W dance number later on). However, while these influences initially feel a little self-conscious, the amount of heart and attention to detail underpinning them makes the production stand up on its own right.

Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones (under heavy prosthetics) in The Shape of Water

The acting here is top-notch, with Sally Hawkins turning in a truly charming performance as a mute woman who is a mix of meekly unassuming, intensely passionate and unfailing stubborn. However, the rest of the main cast members are equally impressive, particularly Michael Shannon as a villain who manages to combine an overwhelmingly sinister presence underpinned with a vaguely melancholy sense of humanity. While as a government agent he’s unremittingly ruthless we also see the flip-side of a man trying to cater for the needs of his family, a pitiful figure who suffers throughout from having the creature bite his fingers off. Octavia Spencer is also lively as Elisa’s loudly gregarious but ultimately caring work mate.

1960s social attitudes

The film gains some depth via its parallels between the way in which the various characters treat the amphibian man and the prevailing social attitudes of 1960s America. That seemingly friendly pie salesman whose sweet wares Giles eats after he gets paid turns out to be an intolerant racist and homophobe. Rampant, brightly-coloured consumerism is a ubiquitous driving force. The unyielding Cold War era obsession with national security runs to the point where human lives are expendable. Strickland makes a casually racist comment to Zelda about how unusual it is for her kind (i.e. black) to be an only child. In this context the clear love between Elisa and the creature (neither of whom can speak) is a beacon of love and understanding in a time when it is largely bereft from wider society.

If I was to criticise The Shape of Water I could point out that most of the story beats ring an overly familiar chime, as well as the fact that the film takes a little too long to get to them. On the other hand, there’s a timeless fairytale quality to the piece that sits in the realm of archetype, thus at least somewhat legitimising the more predictable elements. Del Toro is a director who understands the wonder and power of fantasy - and, moreover, its power to both escape from and potentially heal the world’s myriad injustices.

Runtime: 123 mins

Dir: Guillermo del Toro

Script: Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor

Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones, David Hewlett, Nick Searcy

Rating: ☆☆☆☆

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