Dir. Guillermo Del Toro
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg.
Guillermo Del Toro is one of the greatest directors working today. His Spanish language movies being some of the best made in the 21st century. His English language output has, so far, been mainly studio blockbuster fare, with films such as Blade 2, Hellboy 1 and 2, and Pacific Rim. These were all great, and had plenty of heart, but felt like Del Toro paying his studio dues. His last film Crimson Peak felt like a return, and now with The Shape Of Water, Del Toro is finally starting to challenge his Spanish language output. A film truly worthy of the man behind Pan’s Labyrinth.
The Shape Of Water follows Sally Hawkins’ Eliza. A mute cleaner at a government facility in the 60’s. Her usual daily routine is interrupted with the arrival of the facilities latest asset. A creature of the black lagoon style amphibian man. Brought in by head of security Richard Strickland (played menacingly by Michael Shannon). What follows is a love story as Eliza learns more about the amphibian, and they start to connect. When Eliza discovers that the creature is to be killed, and dissected, she hatches a plan to break the creature out, enlisting the help of neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), work colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and Russian spy Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg).
Del Toro’s film is one of the most gorgeously shot movies of the year. It’s a true love letter to cinema. Every frame stunningly lit, inviting the audience in until it becomes all absorbing. This is a heightened version of the 60’s, creating the feel of a fairytale for adults. It’s a film about fantasy, it’s characters are outsiders who find comfort in each other, and their escapism. You have to question wether or not the film isn’t happening in Eliza’s head. The dream like quality of the movie, and Richard Jenkins’ narration adding to the bedtime story nature of the film. Eliza and Giles’ obsession with old movies, and how these influence their lives. Eliza starts by mimicking a dance routine, until she’s the star of her own fully blown Hollywood production. It’s not hard to imagine Del Toro as a boy, an outsider finding solace in films, dreaming up this story whilst watching Creature From The Black Lagoon. It’s in the rare moments that the real world starts to break in, that we can really question this reality. TV news broadcasts showing police brutality quickly shut off, racist and homophobic characters, the threat of the Cold War, it’s the real world which makes the outsiders retreat further into their fantasies.
Del Toro populates his film with so many interesting characters, making you want to know more about them. Take the man at bus stop holding a cake with one slice missing. It’s the only time you see him, but you know there’s a story behind him. The actors who portray these characters are equally as impressive. Sally Hawkins finally getting the roles and recognition she deserves, and she is breathtakingly good, filling her Eliza with a naive innocence, and a raw sexuality. Octavia Spencer makes good work with the screen time she’s given. Doug Jone turns a scary looking creature into something you care for, which is no mean feat. Richard Jenkins is fantastic, and Michael Shannon is Michael Shannon. His villain a man who has bought into the fantasy of what a man should be in the 60’s, representing all the toxic masculinity that comes with it.
Music, and how music is used in film is also incredibly important to The Shape Of Water, and Alexandre Desplat’s score is beautiful, haunting, and mesmerising. Eliza lives above a theatre called the Orpheum. This means house of Orpheus. Orpheus being a character of Greek myth who uses music to charm. Eliza and the creature first connect over their shared love of music. Orpheus was eventually killed by those who couldn’t hear his music. Which is incredibly apt for a film about the people who live on the margins and feel like they are invisible.
There’s no shortage of things I loved about this film. It’s funny, moving, tense, and heart breaking. It’s a love letter to the power that cinema has. It shares a lot in common with Pan’s Labyrinth, in particular a main character who is referred to as a princess, and then descends into a fantasy world. It’s Guillermo Del Toro’s best English language film, and in his filmography only comes second to Pan’s Labyrinth, which really is saying something.