The Shape of Water (2018) Dir. Guillermo del Toro
Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, a mute janitor at a secret government facility who begins to bond with a strange water-based creature in The Shape of Water – a new fantasy romance from creative force Guillermo del Toro.
Like the much lauded Pan's Labyrinth, Del Toro’s new film crosses the historical with the unbelievable and the director also mixes cold-war fears with a timeless love in a tale like no other. The story begins in 1962 when American Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon adding another fantastic villain to his career) brings a human-like water creature to the facility and cruelly tortures it in an attempt to discover any secrets this animal may have in their battle against the Russians.
Del Toro’s simple camera moves and basic structure give a pureness to the film allowing the subtle layers and themes of isolation, technology and communication to come to the forefront. Like all his films, this simplicity also harks back to his love of fairy tale myths. In this movie he punctuates the screen with colours of green and images of eggs – a symbol as much of creation and fertility as it is the cracked nature of Humpty Dumpty.
Hawkins’ Elisa secretly communicates via sign language which helps her bond with the creature – and whose familiarity to Abe Sapien from del Toro’s Hellboy films does not go unnoticed – and the swamp-man responds to her affections in the face of Shannon’s awful villain.
The great and deep characterisation continues as Elisa is quiet, but not lonely as such, with her being acknowledged at work and having a variety of friends including Richard Jenkins as Giles and Octavia Spencer as her fellow janitor, and sometimes interpreter, Zelda.
The symbolism continues as even her surname (Esposito) has etymological links to being an orphan as well as deriving from the Latin exponere ("to place outside"). It’s even claimed she was found by the river in an obvious parallel. During the blossoming connection we see Elisa masturbating in her bath and the great nuanced screenplay doesn’t shy away from covering themes of masculinity and femininity. Shannon’s excellent turn as the antagonist is pure male villainy yet his physical prowess take a hammering as he loses a phallic finger in an attack from the creature.
As well as sex, there are underlying nods to race and integration that echo the changing nature of society at the time - with the repressive 50s making way for equal-rights, sexual freedom and the burgeoning technology of the 60s. People begin to challenge the fact they are spoken to like second-class citizens whilst Giles loses his advertising design job in the face of photography. More obvious themes come in the form of the space-race and the rivalry between USA and Russia. This is personified by the fantastic Michael Stuhlbarg as Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, a caring scientist whose allegiances are less than clear cut.
With the inclusion of some poetic violence and exciting chase sequences there are arguments that it is unnecessary violent at times but like the best fairy tale stories it has a contrast between light and dark. The expressive dainty and subtle harp music may feel quaint at times but gives the film an ethereal quality and is broken up by loud gunshots and bloody encounters.
We mustn’t forget Doug Jones in all this as the ‘Amphibian Man’ as well. He mimes his way through heavy prosthetics to give the character plenty of feeling and empathy but it’s Sally Hawkins who really is the main draw here. Without verbal language at her disposal, her body movement, eyes and the physicality she gives to the role is key to the film’s winning charm.
Del Toro’s always had a flair for the colourful and enjoys the mix of reality and dream worlds. Yet after a few throwaway gems like Crimson Peak and Pacific Rim, he has hooked all the prize pieces together in this film. A fishy fable like no other, the stupendous Shape of Water is as simple as a child’s story yet at the same time goes to depths only a master filmmaker of del Toro’s skill can reach.
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