It is common knowledge that Guillermo del Toro loves monsters. The Mexican director has made no secret of the fact and his obsession has been articulated on screen before with the superb Pan’s Labyrinth and, to a lesser extent, in the two Hellboy movies. Having ventured, less successfully, into the more traditional horror and sci-fi realms with his last two films (Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak), del Toro returns to his passion with The Shape of Water, a film that, amidst the generally rave reviews and award nominations, has also been deemed the ‘end of civilisation’ by one nut-job pastor who definitely doesn’t deserve the moment in the spotlight that his ridiculous comments have garnered. Sure, others have taken aim at the ‘inter-species relationship’ that is the central tenet of the narrative, but the bond that develops between a mute cleaner and a mysterious sea creature held captive in a research facility is no more provocative than the likes of Beauty and the Beast or other films that have seen human characters form a connection with a non-human entity, such as the relationship between Kong and Ann Darrow in King Kong or Caleb Smith’s flirtations with the robot Ava in Ex-Machina. These types of stories have been around as long as films have existed and this particular version plays out as a fairytale for adults; a celebration of the outsider that pays homage to monster movies with a stylistic nod to Old Hollywood.
Rendered voiceless in a childhood incident, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) lives alone in a flat above a movie cinema. Her day is one of ritual and routine; waking at midnight, masturbating in the bath, catching the bus to work for a night spent in the company of Zelda (Octavia Spencer) as they go about cleaning a facility that seems to require a lot more janitorial attention than seems absolutely necessary. Other than her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), Zelda is the only person with whom Elisa has any kind of relationship as many, especially the supercilious Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), treat her as though her inability to speak somehow makes her intellectually defective in some way. Strickland is the man responsible for the capture of the sea creature being held in a tank at the facility and whilst he, and everybody else, treats the ‘beast’ as a threat, Elisa makes a connection that results in the two developing a mutual affection drawn from a shared sense of being seen as an oddity and therefore misunderstood by others.
Hawkins is wonderful as this lonely woman who is all but invisible to everybody except Zelda, Richard and, of course, her newfound friend from the deep. Having already garnered considerable praise – and some award recognition – for her performances in the likes of Happy-Go-Lucky and Blue Jasmine, Hawkins should feature strongly in the Academy Award reckoning this year. Zelda is a hoot who does more than enough talking for the both of them, while Doug Jones deserves recognition for bringing ferocity and sensitivity to the amphibious creature despite the confines of the costuming. Jenkins is funny as an advertising illustrator whose relevance is being eroded by changing technology, with Michael Stuhlbarg at the centre of a cold war subplot in which his Dr Robert Hoffstetler is torn between his obligations as a Russian agent and his ethical responsibilities as a scientist. The real beast of the piece is Strickland, whose fearsome and intimidating persona at work is in stark contrast to his kitschy home life.
Dan Lausten’s cinematography is vibrant and del Toro has, quite remarkably, executed a vast array of fantastical elements, incorporating practical effects and CGI seamlessly and bringing the whole thing together for less than $20 million. Very much a film that celebrates cinema – Elisa and Giles sit and watch old black and white movies and featuring the likes of Shirley Temple and Betty Grable as other movies play in the cinema below – The Shape of Water is a tale of love, loneliness and connection that is whimsical, wistful and quite wonderful.