We’ve known for a long time that the mind of Guillermo del Toro is exceptionally fantastical: Pan’s Labyrinth, like this film also solely written by dT, is a modern classic, a fairy tale like no other, and his influence on the work of others is unique and identifiable. Everything about The Shape of Water screams the Directors name – and damn is it a cool name. Guillermo. Del. Torrrrro.
Set some time around the middle of the 20th century, in America, in some kind of military bunker, a scaly, slimy, manlike fish is chained, contained and tortured. Michael Shannon heads up this dastardly project; he dominates everyone around him, chewing his candy, and spouting his obnoxious positive-thinking one liners he read someplace. But why subjugate this thing? Come on! It could be a weapon, and the Russians could probably steal it and use it against us, of course!
Sally Hawkins, playing Elisa Espacito, sees the beauty in a monstrosity. She feels a kinship with this being, this misunderstood, hurting creature – for she too cannot be understood easily, she is mute. Hawkins is my favourite British actress, primarily for her roles in Vera Drake, Happy-Go-Lucky, Submarine and Woody Allen’s masterful recreation of A Streetcar named Desire, Blue Jasmine. I’ll watch anything with her in it, and she doesn’t let me down here. I believed the sign language, I believed the face over the sign language – she has such big eyes; evocative eyes. I was drawn into this world through her quirky personality. She lives as friends with a failing product artist, they watch old song-and-dance numbers together, she’s clearly a romantic: she taps along to the music, she doesn’t have to say anything. Her day job is cleaning this military facility, and when she locks eyes on this frogman her curiosity is deeply roused and held. Sneaking in to the containment pond it’s kept in whenever possible, Elisa feeds and begins to communicate with her new friend.
The set design is fantastic, and yes, as everyone is saying: dat colour palette though. The film is green and swampy, like its centrepiece. It’s aesthetically beautiful and ugly, like how the sickly, brown hue of Villeneuve’s Enemy draws and repulses you. The camera is very mobile, which I thought was really appropriate: scurrying us along the floor like a rat etc.
There are elements of comedy, tragedy, romance and action, all captured with their own properly-paced rumblings, build-ups and climactic set-pieces. This might be dT’s 2nd best film; that’s saying something, its hype and probable awards are deserved.