The Shape of Water is Guillermo del Toro’s tenth feature film in the director’s chair and boy does he seem comfy there. It’s filled with all the weirdness and quirk for which he is so well revered but balanced out beautifully with stylish cinematography and delicate romance.
From it’s remarkable opening scene we are made to feel right at home in this under water fairytale. Indeed, the slightly green hue throughout the film adds to the feeling that the audience is floating through an aquatic 1960’s America with our heroine, Elisa (Sally Hawkins). We join in with her mundane routine and soon learn that she is mute and living alone. Companionship comes in the form of her animated colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and melancholy neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) but we get the distinct feeling she wants more from life.
Her cleaning job in a government facility gives Elisa chance to meet ‘The Asset’, played by Doug Jones, a creature from under the sea held captive by the Americans who believe it could be the next big scientific breakthrough. Elisa and The Asset, sharing an inability to speak, learn to communicate on a deeper level. It’s at this point that anything less than directorial brilliance and top drawer acting would likely produce something farcical or horrific. Luckily for us the end result is a stylish, new kind of love story. One that shirks the need for vocal communication or even compatible human biology. An interspecies thwarted romance which reminds us that love not only conquers but empowers all and allows us to be who we truly are.
Doug Jones’ portrayal of The Asset is as impressive as any of his huge back catalogue of creatures. This is in fact the former contortionist’s sixth collaboration with del Toro, which has most notably included the Faun and the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth and Abe Sapien in the Hellboy films. One could be forgiven for believing Abe Sapien and The Asset to be the same creature due to a more than striking resemblance, but the director has quashed any such rumour and cleared it up with the explanation that this sea creature was borne from a 6 year old del Toro’s love of ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon’.
Michael Shannon’s outstanding performance as leader of the facility, Strickland, provides the film with a perfect comic book style villain. The darker side of his character’s racial prejudice and actions towards women serving as a timely social commentary on the state of Hollywood at present, as well as helping make the act of watching his perfectly ordered world fall apart even more gleeful.
The film picked up 4 Oscars and 2 Golden Globes. Incredibly, all this cost less than $20 million to make but raked in $190.5 million at the box office. In a world where major production budgets are regularly hitting $100 million it just goes to show money can’t buy you love, and it shouldn’t need to.
As someone who approaches every new del Toro project with a hope it will make me feel the same way Pan’s Labyrinth did, I did feel early twangs of disappointment at the film’s focus on romance. These didn’t last long though, soon replaced by the realisation del Toro has reached a new level. Where his ability to defy genre in favour of telling his own unique stories has led him to a defining point in his career. A point where an incredibly strange film like The Shape of Water can be made on a shoestring budget, win Oscars and earn him the deserved widespread recognition as one of the greats. We know he’s taking a year off from directing, but wherever he takes us next I can’t wait to jump in with both feet
Film at the Folk Hall Rating: 8/10