REVIEW: The Shape of Water
– By James Pemberton
In some kind of alternative universe it would be interesting to see Del Toro’s take on the Universal monsters, an offer he was given back in 2007, but unfortunately didn’t take. Since that, last year’s THE MUMMY pretty much put the Dark Universe reboot on hold after its box office failure, a chance to see Del Toro take the reigns of a reboot for this would be much more of a tantalising prospect, especially since his latest film has been garnering praise and awards, with the director recently picking up a Best Director gong at the Baftas, and is hopefully going to give the director more of a chance to pick and choose the projects he wants. What more of a better film-maker to take on any subject involving monsters, and with THE SHAPE OF WATER Del Toro delivers one of his best takes on the genre with a lyrically beautiful adult fairytale.
The films heroine is the mute Elisa (Hawkins), who lives an ordered life of getting up for her night shift as a cleaner at a military research facility and conversing daily with her gay neighbour Giles (Jenkins), who also works as a struggling advertising artist. Elisa’s only other connection/friendship to the outside world is her work colleague, Zelda (Spencer) who interprets for her. A new secret “asset” arrives at the facility, which we find out is a creature, amphibious in origin and one found in the jungles of South America. Heading the security and responsibility of this asset is the stern and menacing Strickland (Shannon) and scientist Hoffstetler (Stuhlbarg) who we also learn has some dubious connections of his own. Elisa soon develops a bond with the creature, occasionally feeding it hard boiled eggs and playing music. But Strickland’s military superiors have other intentions on their mind and want the creature dissected for scientific purposes, much to the disagreement of Hoffstetler, who along with Elisa, recognises the creature has human characteristics, understanding and emotion beyond its otherwise beastly appearance.
Del Toro has fashioned a rich world in THE SHAPE OF WATER, which, much like his previous film, CRIMSON PEAK, is beautifully designed and fantastical and grandiose in its look. It works on offering a combination of realistic historical period detail and otherworldly forms, combining a sharp eye for detail and fantastic production design. There’s also running motifs of water throughout, from the military labs tanks, to the bath Elisa takes every time she wakes up, to the torrential rain storm that engulfs the final third of the film. Del Toro is a master at this form and sets out to make the design and look of the film as much a part of the story as the characters. He also likes to carry on his themes of monsters and the human monster visited frequently in his previous films. It’s no surprise that the setting of the film is of the late 60’s, with the rise of the civil rights movement, and clearly the themes and the sympathies Del Toro offers are towards the characters who would seem to represent the “other.” Whether it would be Elisa who is a mute, her gay neighbour, the African American couple who are refused service at a diner counter and most of all the Amphibian man being held captive in an aqua tank. The film pitches the understanding towards these characters and not towards the brutal institutions of the past, with the most obvious being the romance between Elisa and the Amphibian man which is transcendent as it passes the line between the normality of relations and in to something resembling the film’s only true loving relationship. The relics of the past are represented by Strickland: a brutal, bullying military man whose family life seems to be a straight forward throwback to the 50’s. Shannon is superb in this role and despite his appearance which already carries an air of menace, he still somehow adds dimension to Strickland, as even we see that his character is forced and bullied by his superiors into getting results and his naturalistic brutishness plays into another one of Del Toro’s male characters that resemble more of a monster than a man, particularly recalling the violent Vidal character from PAN’S LABYRINTH. An authority figure willing to employ dubious and brutal methods to gain reason and purpose for his position in employment and life.
Hopkins delivers a great performance as Elisa. Using her facial expressions and movement she perfectly captures her character’s relationship with the Amphibian man and her slow realisation of the romance she feels for him. There’s an odd and slightly comic scene where the film breaks out into a 50’s musical and allows the only time Elisa speaks, or in this case sings, about her love for her aquatic friend. It’s at once an odd, slightly tentative throwback to the musical genre that Elisa and Giles both love and watch together. Again the two other supports in Jenkins and Spencer are excellent and add depth to the other two significant characters in the film. Particularly with Jenkins being the older, wiser, closeted homosexual character who is understandably accepting of the Amphibian man and not of the more calculating, racially bullying and homophobic older order. Special mention should go to Jones, a Del Toro regular, who adds a human weight, characteristics and emotional depth to the Amphibian man. If anything it’s a performance that would be physically demanding and is a testament that Del Toro has pitched Jones into a more major role which he perfectly fits into.
If anything THE SHAPE OF WATER is a testament to Del Toro as a director and a master technician in creating worlds and shaping believable stories set around unbelievable circumstances. The film does have some moments that could have possibly been left out, particularly the aforementioned musical throwback moment that could loosen up the pacing. Yet it still stands out as a fantastical adult fairytale, orchestrated by a director with a startling cinematic imagination that is hard not to be entranced by. In hindsight I still think he should have called it I FELL IN LOVE WITH AN AMAZONIAN SEA MONSTER though. That title would guarantee awards.