DIR: Guillermo del Toro • WRI: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor PRO: Gerard Butler, Mark Canton, Tony Grazia, Alan Siegel, Tucker Tooley • DOP: Dan Laustsen • ED: Sidney Wolinsky • MUS: Alexandre Desplat • DES: Kara Lindstrom • CAST: Doug Jones, Michael Shannon, Sally Hawkins
The Shape of Water opens with an opening of its own. Tunneling through sunken corridors as if narrow chinks of the mind the camera gently slips us beyond the gilded gateways of slumber. It’s here in this boundless bliss where lamps and tables tip-toe and drift, a clock overhead, a chair undertow, untethered, unhooked, untucked and let go. We too soon find ourselves upended and utterly immersed into the realm behind closed eyes where a “princess without a voice” can be heard without a sound.
Our princess is Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute janitor whose routine of mopping floors in a government research lab plunges into the extraordinary as she becomes mysteriously drawn to their latest top-secret “Asset”. Tall, athletic and gorgeously gilled this ancient creature turned captive might just be the edge the USA need to push them ahead in the ongoing space-race. As a bond blossoms between them, Elisa soon realizes the creature’s survival may entirely rest in her hands. Teaming up with her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a plan is hatched to save the otherworldly creature from a looming government autopsy.
There’s no doubt that Guillermo del Toro has a fierce finesse for engineering visually stunning environments and The Shape of Water makes no exception. From the opening score’s pirouetting notes we are effortlessly nudged afloat into a world bathing in rusted greens and deep-diving blues. Elisa’s home appears almost submerged in an oceanic palette where apartment antiquities form curious clusters of knick-knacks, freckling floors like barnacles clinging to shore. Down below, a derelict cinema pulses flickers of fantasy through Elisa’s floorboards, a tempting invitation to a world of wonder. A wonder that can often be smothered between the functional and formidable dank walls of the government facility. But it’s here where we first meet our captivating creature, an enchanted combination of performance and costume. His taut physique ripples with slippery sounds, from fluttering gills to guttural gasps; this “monster” is truly alive.
Del Toro’s delicate designs aren’t just left bobbing at the surface, they stem from a colour-coded labyrinth emanating from the film’s centre. However, the way in which the film conveys its core ideas are anything but subtle. Heavy-handed messages and symbols are underlined and foregrounded leaving little for audiences to digest. At his best, del Toro’s films have always opened up a dialogue between the past and present and in The Shape of Water the director takes us back to 1962 to explore ‘the moment where America crystallizes the notion of a dream that never came to be’. Jet-finned luxury Sedans, a coca-cola bottle in hand and a television in every home, this is the American dream brought to you by Budweiser. It’s a mythologized era that echoes through people who vow to ‘Make America Great Again’. The film offers to wash away that myth, peeling back its varnished layers to reveal a rust festering beneath, the rampant racism, the homophobia, the Russian threat, the impending death of cinema and asks the question, has anything changed?
The film’s main characters are outsiders, world weary wanderers living out of step with time. They suffer in silence, each appearing as voiceless as Elisa. Michael Shannon’s unhinged charisma is neatly packed into Strickland, a callous government agent whose surface of certainty soon gives way to rot. Prowling corridors, clutching a stiff cattle prod by his side one can’t help but think he may be compensating for something. Sally Hawkins proves again why she is one of the best actors working today. Her subtle expressions skip along the spectrum of human emotion with such transcendent ease it becomes quietly mesmerizing. Not only is Elisa courageously curious in her endeavors, she also expresses her sexuality with a brazen honesty. Del Toro strips the sensational from the sensual and leaves us with something far more satisfying.
The film works at its best when following Elisa’s courtship with the sinewy specimen. A symphony of glances and gestures swim through silences where timid connections are made. Each speak a universal language both dizzy, daring and strange, from light jazz records to hard boiled eggs we sense an intimacy simmering between the two. Unfortunately, the moments of magic only last so long as we’re catapulted through a rushed second half where the film tries to reach towards the profound, only to pull a muscle. It wants us to let go, allowing the current to carry us away but at certain points (one in particular) I found my self resisting its reverie.
With hands endlessly twirling the escape hatch of certainty, Guillermo Del Toro pushes us into the deep end of his imagination. A technicolor realm of delight, there’s no ignoring the craft involved here, the sets glisten, the soundtrack twinkles and all the actors are on top form. However, the allure of the opening soon becomes weighed down by an uneven latter half. At times the movie can seem like a Rubik’s Cube waiting to be solved but there’s a sweetness to the science where you can almost feel the director’s passion unfurling before your eyes.
For all its cosmic tingles, del Toro manages to smuggle a deeply personal film across Hollywood’s border where, beneath its haunted charm, lies an immigrant’s story rising to the surface, setting us adrift in a dream.
15A (See IFCO for details)
The Shape of Water is released 14th February 2018