A mute cleaning lady, Elisa, works at a secret facility during the cold war. She feels incomplete and freakish, going through her life in a dream. While in one of the containment areas she discovers an amphibious humanoid creature and begins to develop a relationship with it. However, the US government has their eyes on the creature, and are willing to destroy it to learn from its biology to advance their space programme.
Del Toro is known for his dark fairy tales, like Pans Labyrinth, and when I say fairy tales that is what I mean. As well as all of the romance and sweetness that Disney fairy stories have, The Shape of Water has all the elements that the Brothers Grimm trys to remove, it has blood and other things as well. It is a story that has a complexity and shadow that perfectly entice those with a more macabre disposition. The premise of a lady falling in love with a monster may put people off, but stick with it as the story is highly satisfying for the most part. The end does feel a little cheap and easy when the rest of the film was so dark and scrappy. This is not a film for the faint of heart, there is masturbation in the first 10 minutes of the film, interspecies sex, there is gore, racism, homophobia; it deals with heavy issues and yet the end feels out of place and disappointing.
Del Toro is also known for great aesthetic, and The Shape of Water is no exception with the moody atompunk aesthetics that appear in the film. We are firmly set in the 1950’s, and we can see that from the diners, the cinemas, the fashion, the movies and the music that the characters enjoy. The Shape of Water revels in its setting, it seems to take joy in showing us films and music that are in this world, and it feels as though Del Toro is taking us through his collection of movies. However, it also revels in the darker corners, with the slightly worn fluorescent look of the facility and the pokey, cluttered apartments that are full of exposed pipes and pylons.
Similarly, if we are talking about a Del Toro film, we have to talk about the design of the creature or asset. This is an outstanding collaboration between actor and effects team, it looks like a cross between Hellboy‘s Abe Sapien and The Creature from the Black Lagoon, though the latter is intentional and the former is because it is brought to life by the it-man in the suit, Doug Jones. Jones is haunting in the role, using his physicality to communicate so much, while it may not be as involved as Gollum, it is a fantastic creature. And when he and the captivating Sally Hawkins are sharing the screen together the sparks fly. Sally Hawkins is a wonder as the mute Elisa, a quiet, lonely soul who is both fairy tale princess and totally human and believable as well. The best scenes in the film are where she is interacting with the asset and Richard Jenkins, her gay neighbour. This is when we see her happy and her joy fills the screen. I will say though she does have a tendency to overact in parts, especially during the more pivotal moments, which can be a bit distracting. Finally, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer and Michael Shannon round out a terrific cast; the former are fantastic as always but Shannon steals every scene he is in providing a steeling intensity that is deeply terrifying. His doggedness in the pursuit of his goals is monstrous and strangely captivating.
While The Shape of Water may seem odd to those who saw the premise, I urge you not to judge a fish by its scales. This is a film that demands a look, for its great visuals, creature design and emotional core, which will have you smiling through your tears. This dark fairy tale feels like a personal tale told by a master due to the meticulous design, the fantastic, if slightly hammy, performances and a story that will be one I will be returning to again and again, despite the movie not really sticking the landing.
You can watch Shape of Water in cinema’s now