It’s always hard to begin a review of a Guillermo Del Toro film. On the surface, pretty much all of his films sound like B-movies but Del Toro has always managed to fill them with heart and soul (I recently went over this on an episode of the Cinema Recall podcast on Pan’s Labyrinth) and he’s probably reached the peak of it here. Originally pitched as a re-imagining of Creature From the Black Lagoon, when Universal rejected the film in favour of the now defunct Dark Universe, Del Toro took the film and made what could have been a cheesy, lurid B-movie in the hands of a lesser director into a powerful, beautiful romance that had me crying throughout.
The film focuses on Elisa Esposito, a mute woman working as a cleaner at a government facility in 1950’s Baltimore. During her work, she comes into contact with an asset captured for the facility, a fish-man for lack of a better phrase, and ends up forming a connection with the creature. When Elisa finds out that the creature is set to be killed and vivisected, she hatches a plan to break the creature out with the help of her friends Giles and Zelda, along with scientist Dr Hoffstetler, with Elisa planning to release the creature, but having to do so before she’s found by Colonel Strickland, who wants the creature back to further his career. Now, as I said, in the hands of a lesser director, this could have been incredibly lurid, but in the hands of Del Toro, working with Vanessa Taylor, this is a beautiful film, with the romance between Elisa and the asset being front and centre in what makes the film so beautiful. The connection that’s formed between Elisa and the asset is probably one of the best romances put to screen in recent years, mainly due to a sense of understanding. At every stage in the relationship between Elisa and the asset there’s a sense of compassion and understanding that the two have for each other, united in their shared loneliness, feeling themselves unable to connect romantically with anyone else, and as we see this relationship foster throughout the film, you are engaged and want to see a way for the two of them to be happy together. What also helps is the lack of shame throughout the film and the recognition that, no matter which form it takes, Elisa’s sexuality is something that is entirely her own and completely normal for her. This is present from the start of the film with the film depicting Elisa masturbating in the bath as something completely mundane and part of her schedule and this respect for Elisa’s sexuality needed to be in the film, otherwise the romance between her and the asset would fall apart.
The film also continues the theme present throughout Del Toro’s films of what exactly makes a monster, done through contrasting the asset to Strickland. For the asset, even though he is more monstrous in appearance and the film doesn’t shy away from the fact that the asset is a creature with no understanding of human society, he is ultimately a gentle, romantic soul. With Strickland meanwhile, he’s presented as having the ideal life of an American man in the 1950’s throughout the film, with this being used to highlight how the appearance of stability and perfection is a smokescreen for something darker. We see that Strickland as a full representative of toxic masculinity, filled with bitterness over his inadequacies, filled with rage and treating those beneath him as if they don’t exist, with this being used by Elisa to her benefit, using Strickland’s prejudice to hide in plain sight after she breaks the asset out. We also see a contrast in the two between the assets genuine love and understanding of Elisa and Strickland’s obsession over her, with Strickland’s obsession revealing greater levels of darkness within the character.
Attention also needs to be given to the use of movement throughout the film, particularly dance and the use of classic musicals throughout the film. There’s a universality to the movement throughout the film, Elisa and Giles having a strong bond through dancing along to musicals sat on a sofa together, using artistry to express their feelings, whilst music is one of the key factors that develops the relationship between Elisa and the asset, the two forming a bond through listening to music together and connecting to it, with a beautiful scene near the end of the film showing the true power of music and dance in expressing emotions that normal speech cannot.
The performances throughout the film are uniformly excellent. Sally Hawkins delivers one of her best performances as Elisa, subtle facial movements and changes in body language being used to show the changing emotions in Elisa, particularly as she grows more content in life through her relationship with the asset, along with showing a complete lack of shame in the relationship, knowing that as long as it makes her happy and gives her a deep emotional connection to another being, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Doug Jones as the asset meanwhile once again shows why he’s the modern master when it comes to elaborate creature make-up. Jones takes what must have been a heavy, cumbersome piece of prosthetics and creates a beautiful, graceful creature throughout the film, his eye movements and body language conveying the love he feels for Elisa, his pain at his treatment at the hands of Strickland and his respect for Elisa and Giles. Richard Jenkins as Giles meanwhile gives a heartbreaking performance throughout the film, one that plays well in comparison to Hawkins with Giles being a closeted gay man who lost his job as an artist, probably for being gay, unable to express himself through his romantic leanings, hoping for any form of love even though he knows he will never get it, Elisa being the only person who shows him love in his life, it’s a powerful performance and easy to see why Jenkins was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars. Michael Shannon as Strickland meanwhile is great at delivering the growing rage and monstrosity of the character, growing more disgusting as the film goes on and Shannon makes this growing disgusting nature feel believable, which just makes the character more terrifying. Octavia Spencer as Zelda is essentially Elisa’s voice throughout the film, the chemistry between Spencer and Hawkins selling the years long friendship the two have, along with being a moral voice throughout the film. Michael Stuhlbarg meanwhile continues to show why he’s one of the best character actors working today with a complex anti-hero character, although to explain why would spoil the film.
On a technical level, the film hits the highs you come to expect from a Guillermo Del Toro film. The production design, particularly the design of the facility and Elisa’s flat is excellent throughout the film and adds a great deal of character to the environment. The music creates a beautiful, fairy tale quality to the film, helping to give the film a haunting power whilst the direction and cinematography highlights the physical movements of the characters throughout the film and showcases Del Toro’s skills in creating beauty from horror. The true stand-out on the technical side of the film though is the design of the asset. Firstly, the character design is just beautiful, highlighting the expressive eyes of the character, showing the physical strength of the character along with a sense of grace through his movements in the water. Then there’s the actual make-up. As I mentioned earlier, Doug Jones works perfectly with the make-up in creating the characters movements, but there’s also beauty in the colour scheme used for the creature and the gore effects for after the asset gets tortured. These elements help to make the character so sympathetic and let you understand more clearly why Elisa fell in love with him so easily.
Overall, The Shape of Water is a magnificent film. It’s not Del Toro’s masterpiece, I don’t think anything will beat Pan’s Labyrinth, but this does come close. This is an absolutely beautiful film that shows the true nature of monsters and that love, in any form, should be cherished.
My Rating: 5/5