Guillermo Del Toro brings his trademark dark fairytale aesthetic to bear on this dreamy, beautifully realised tale, a tale as old as time, a song as old as rhyme: beauty and the moist.
Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaning lady, found as an infant with mysterious scars on her neck works as part of the janitorial staff at a top secret research facility in the 1960s. When a new subject, a mysterious amphibious creature, is captured and brought in for study, their mutual isolation brings them together in a most unexpected way. Together with her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), she determines to rescue the creature from a life of captivity and the threat of vivisection.
There’s a surreal richness to the visuals from the moment the house lights dim in this touching and deeply romantic love letter to the monster movies of Del Toro’s youth. Cinema looms large in the movie, forming the basis for fantasies and dream sequences which ebb and flow in and out of the narrative with sublime ease. Deceptively complex, it offers so much that one viewing simply isn’t enough. It’s a silent movie romance, embraced tenderly in a classic Universal monster movie, topped off with a cold war thriller bow, each feeling essential and authentic to the 1960s setting.
There are monsters in “The Shape Of Water”, for sure, but they’re not the mysterious creature from the lab’s lagoon. As with all of Del Toro’s work, the gothic whimsy turns dark, brutal and frightening when it needs to and in this, he brings us an array of fascinating characters. In many ways, the film is a peon to loneliness, be it socially imposed or self-inflicted and the story centres on six lonely people, each dealing with their isolation in different ways. For some, that loneliness consumes and ultimately destroys them but for the others, it provokes a profound empathy and ultimately saves them.
For Elisa and her friends, Zelda, who endures a thankless marriage to a man who takes her for granted and Giles (Richard Jenkins) a closeted gay man in a hostile society, that loneliness fosters a profound understanding and kindness; for the creature, the isolation brings fear. For the Russian spy at the heart of the research institute, the loneliness brings a longing for home and for the angry and malevolent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), that loneliness, born of a righteous sense of duty and a growing disenchantment and detachment from his spouse manifests as violence and cruelty.
The beauty and artistry of the filmmaking is matched completely by the performances on offer. Sally Hawkins is mesmerising as Elisa, a wordless poet at the romantic heart of the film. Doug Jones, likewise, provides a moving, complex and nuanced performance as the creature while Shannon legitimately terrifies as the ruthlessly single-minded and hateful government agent.
Ingenious, exquisite, breathtaking cinema, “The Shape Of Water” is the tender love story icthyophiles and cinephiles have been waiting for.