A top notch marriage of fantasy and heartfelt drama, The Shape of Water is pure Guillermo del Toro, and quite deserving of the praise it’s received.
In 1960s Baltimore, mute cleaner Eliza (Sally Hawkins) drifts through life working at a secret government laboratory alongside friend and colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and living next door to friendly neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins). The arrival of sadistic Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings a mysterious humanoid creature from South America (Doug Jones), and Eliza becomes irrevocably attached to it.
The very premise of this (written by del Toro alongside Vanessa Taylor) is typical GdT – the director’s love of monsters and freaks is well known, yet it’s his ability to give them humanity that sets him apart (Pan’s Labyrinth the high watermark so far). The Shape of Water marries his love of fantastical beasts to his eye for character, utilising its period setting to create a sweeping romantic drama.
Where I think he succeeds is in this balance between the fantastical and human – the monster is unable to communicate, but so is Eliza, while its perceived monstrosity and alien nature leads the humans and scientists to become animalistic and violent in trying to understand and dominate it. These constant intersections between what is human and what is monstrous knit the film together.
The love story seems so far fetched and yet del Toro’s eye for strange yet beautiful creations, and his handling of the silent “conversations” between Eliza and the creature, fill scenes with a romantic tenderness other films struggle to create with two humans! The larger plot also has much to say in smaller doses about the inequalities of the time, both Spencer and Jenkins’ characters not defined by their poor treatment but characterised by their human and affecting responses to it.
It must be said that the practical effects for Doug Jones’ performance are spectacular, meaning you largely buy into this “merman” as a tangible character and not another bloke in a naff suit. Added to this are the expertly contrasting sets, and lighting from Dan Lausten. The two connect to evoke a sense of place and time, the colourwashed labs and ’50s/’60s apartments accordingly lit, with Eliza and Giles’ homes above a cinema lovingly recreated from the period (grimy tiles and all), and the austere, militaristic facility evoking the Cold War in colourless, concrete oppressiveness.
Alexandre Desplat’s period soundtrack is also perfectly gauged for the setting, with a memorable central theme that could have been plucked from a ’60s film. It also sweeps up and down along with the scenes of dramatic tension or quiet, tender interactions, and I can see why it has been so acclaimed.
The performances are what gives this movie its class, however. Sally Jenkins is unforgettable as Eliza, using her expressive features to bring a mute character to vibrant life, and taking us from rage to sadness and tenderness in a heartbeat. As mentioned, her scenes with Jones are silent but affecting to watch, and Jenkins manages to do so much with so little that I’m not surprised she’s been nominated for Best Actress.
Jones and Shannon deserve to have their performances compared and contrasted, the former our main modern day monster man like Lon Chaney or Boris Karloff in the past, and the latter an always reliable and gripping character actor. Jones brings the tangible yet fantastical monster to life, his unique frame and dancer’s gait once again giving a seemingly horrific creature humanity and sensitivity, alongside a flourish of animal violence and unpredictability.
Shannon meanwhile is the monster’s human mirror, a man with a seemingly perfect American life but for whom violence and brutality are too easily undertaken. His distinctive granite-like features are an edifice behind which true horror lurks: however, the actor’s strengths in depth are expressed via the character’s zeal to discover a conspiracy, his attempts to blend into society (despite the bubbling, all too human monstrosity within), and his disregard for his health as the plot progresses. He’s an uncomfortable yet talented performer making the most of a great role.
Octavia Spencer slightly falls into the trap of “sassy black friend” as Zelda, but the actress has plenty of opportunities (that she seizes) to show a hidden steel, a forceful personality and a fierce loyalty. Jenkins is luckier as a kind of father figure for Eliza, and has a quite affecting plot where he tries to deal with society’s view of him as gay, and how that affects his work and his romantic life. Both actors here play to their strengths from other roles (Spencer’s steeliness and Jenkin’s old, tired stoicism), but together present a bit of colour and life to the supporting cast.
Finally, Michael Stuhlbarg grants the at first officious Dr Hoffstetler with a surprising level of complexity, the bit part character’s motivations and reasons for his actions unpredictable, and the actor conveys a man trying desperately to hold everything together for just enough time, but ready to unravel at a moment’s notice.
I was quite surprised with how taken I was by The Shape of Water. You’ll know what you’re in for if you’ve seen a del Toro movie before (well, those that are slower and more dramatic, not action packed bonanzas).It’s initially quite surprising that this sumptuous film is somehow nominated for and winning so many awards, but watching it, you can see that the director’s love for the maligned and odd has here been made into something special.