Guillermo Del Toro returns with his one of his most critically-acclaimed outings. Oscar is here to heap on the praise.
The Shape of Water is Guillermo Del Toro’s newest fantasy visual tour de force, tinged with a wistful fairytale mysticism. Hewing from a variety of “monster and maiden” stories like Beauty and the Beast in themes and character, and classic creature pictures like The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Del Toro succeeds at creating a touching story of love breaching the boundaries of species and societal norms.
Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a lonely woman working as a janitor at a secret government laboratory during the Cold War in 1962. She is mute and communicates through sign language; her only two friends are her next door neighbour, Giles (Richard Jenkins), a struggling gay advertisement illustrator, and her co-worker and interpreter Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer). The facility receives a creature in a tank, captured from the Amazon River by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Curious, Elisa discovers that the creature is a humanoid amphibian (Doug Jones) and begins visiting the creature in secret, communicating with him through sign language and forming a close bond. An encounter with the Creature leaves Strickland bleeding profusely and two of his fingers severed. Seeking to exploit the creature for possible advantages in the Space Race, General Frank Hoyt (Nick Searcy) orders Strickland to vivisect him. One scientist, Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), pleads unsuccessfully to keep the being alive for further study. Elisa learns of the plans and enlists the help of Giles to help free him from captivity.
The cast all do a fantastic job; Hawkins especially shines as Elisa, instilling a great deal of passion into her sign language performance and emoting so well with her eyes and expressions. Jenkins puts a lot of heart and humour into his performance, has good platonic chemistry with Hawkins, and captures the sadness of a gay man living in the 60s. Shannon is a nasty piece of work as Strickland – intimidating, cold and so casually callous in a believable way that you really fear his presence. There’s enough humanity that you really believe he is a weak man underneath all that bravado. Though covered under makeup and an elaborate suit, Jones makes a strong impression as the mysterious Creature in the same year he gave us alien Saru in Star Trek: Discovery. Spencer is charming and humorous as Zelda, instilling a sense of fun without diluting the story’s sincerity. Stuhlbarg does well as a fearful yet intelligent scientist, and Searcy is somewhat one-dimensional as the ill-tempered general, but works well with what he’s given.
The cinematography by Dan Laustsen does a fantastic job of creating a grimy, bleak and yet atmospheric setting, stripping away the familiar 60’s pizazz and vibrancy, and largely dominated by the colour green, giving it both a dreamlike and underwater quality. The production values are as good as one would expect from a Del Toro film, and are more impressive considering the relatively limited budget this film had, looking far better than other fantasy films with double or even ten times that budget. This attention to detail draws you in immediately.
The makeup and creature effects on Jones are another fitting tribute to Del Toro’s dedication to practical effects, looking otherworldly yet believable as a being that could exist in some remote part of the world. You really feel for this character and his plight. There is some sparing use of CGI for a few scenes, and while it is often rendered to a high standard and blends well with the practical effects, there are moments where its more noticeable and perhaps needed another polish-up.
The score by Alexandre Desplat is absolutely beautiful, alternating from light and enchanting to smooth jazz melodies, but also delivering on suspenseful action cues and overlaying each scene with atmosphere, building up the initial mystery of the Creature, and the gentle yet courageous spirit of Elisa. The way Desplat gives feeling and presence to water in music form is very commendable.
The script succeeds in making the romance and sexual attraction both compelling and organic for Elisa and the Creature, as two lonely souls falling increasingly in love as they find themselves freed in each other’s company, physically and emotionally. Indeed, all of the protagonists are misfits of some form or another, whether it’s Giles as an aging homosexual or Zelda as a blue-collar black American worker. Given the narrow and oppressive attitudes of the 60s for people who could not fit into societal norms, this serves as an ideal framing device for the romance. That sense of otherness in both human and non-human characters and how that becomes a means of bonding is woven throughout the film. Both of Elisa’s friends also have their own yearnings for belonging and a better life than they have, but are ultimately pushed away. These are the catalysts for the help they offer to Elisa when she needs it most.
Del Toro draws from two fairytales in particular: The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. The comparisons to The Little Mermaid emerge in Elisa’s muteness, akin to the titular mermaid character lacking a voice on dry land, and falling in love with a denizen of a forbidden other-world. The finale further supports such similarities. Naturally, it wouldn’t be a “Beauty and the Beast” kind of story without visual metaphors of inner versus outer beauty. Elisa is often pejoratively referred to as looking “plain” but has a noticeable grace and tenderness to her being, much like a traditionally youthful fairytale princess. The Creature, while somewhat frightening in appearance, is gentle and empathetic and displays benign powers that are revealed with a blue luminescent glow. There are even similarities to King Kong, another Beauty and the Beast story, and though much less apparent than the fairytale comparisons, the theme of taking a rare and mysterious creature from its remote tropical home for selfish and ultimately destructive purposes is central to the enmity between the Creature and Strickland. So, the story itself is not all that unfamiliar, with the real Beauty and the Beast being its main foundation of inspiration.
Strickland’s obsession with asserting masculine dominance over women, other men and indeed other species is, in a way, the prejudiced attitudes of Cold War America writ large. Further implications of the cattle prod he carries everywhere are also there for further interpretation. He appears to have everything any man his age could want – a family, a good house, money, authority, and patriotic aspirations, yet his sexist, racist and elitist attitudes as well as his monstrous temper casts all of that in a nasty light. Everything this man does to appear as a model citizen, such as buying a fancy new car, is undone to manifest his inner nastiness. Another metaphor of his moral decay is that of his reattached fingers turning gangrenous before the end, leaving a noticeably rotten smell and eventually oozing pus. He is essentially an American Capitan Vidal. But he is also the only example in the film of what many Americans in that period would have striven to be like, and the presentation does get heavy-handed at times.
In terms of other flaws, there is one very corny sequence in the third act where Elisa romantically fantasises about the Creature, and it honestly came off as too over-the-top for the kind of film that it was, more so because it started out very poignant and sympathetic. There are a few dialogue-focused scenes that are meant to be thematically important but honestly came off as redundant. While not a very long film, its pacing can alternate between solid and slow at times.
You can tell this film is a passion project for Del Toro through and through. It’s easy to pick out the similarities to classic fairytales or find its overall dark mood dispiriting, but it comes with the territory for the director. Ultimately, The Shape of Water is a lovingly crafted fantasy film with Del Toro’s distinctive mix of darkness, drama and heart.