Director Guillermo del Toro builds his worlds from the ground up, imbuing his chosen universes with such distinct senses of self that we can’t help but buy immediately into the world he’s drawn. A man with a mind for the fantastical and a heart for humanity, del Toro may be one of our most empathetic directors working today, no matter the ludicrous and magical realms his characters live in. From the somber reality of Crimson Peak which offers redemption even to the most horrid of individuals, to Pacific Rim which instead of focusing on the end of the world in an apocalyptic flick instead turns an eye to those who band together in face of adversity to risk life and limb for the safety of our planet. Of course, there’s Pans Labyrinth , which in the midst of some of the most heinous crimes that could be committed to a child, carves out time to showcase similar acts of wonder, kindness and hope. Even Hellboy anchors itself in the world of outcasts who find camaraderie and community in their secluded underworld of misfits. The Shape of Water grabs ahold of these themes of compassion and curiosity and detonates them, resulting in the messiest of his films in terms of sheer ideas and motives that he throws out at the screen while also the most controlled when it comes to just how he presents those ideas. It’s the most Del Toro has ever been Del Toro. It’s as absurd as it is romantic, as harrowing as its is vibrant, as musically inclined as it is prone to violence. It’s an amalgamation of things that simply shouldn’t work and yet do because the creator is someone who believes completely in his character’s abilities to connect to the audience and his worlds to resonate.
Del Toro, fabulously, doesn’t know how to do anything in half-measures. For good and for bad, he’s fully committed to the tonally sporadic picture he’s created. With any lesser director The Shape of Water might have been simply ridiculous or worse, unwatchable. With del Toro at the helm however, we’ve got his most accomplished piece of filmmaking since his breakout Pans Labyrinth.
The film follows Elisa (Sally Hawkins) a mute and isolated woman who works as a cleaning lady in a high-security government laboratory in the dead of night in the midst of the Cold War. He life is forever changed with the arrival of the lab’s classified secret, a mysterious, scaled creature (Doug Jones) dragged out of his home in South America by deranged, army man Strickland (Michael Shannon – suitably unhinged). As Elisa develops a delicate and sexual bond with her new companion, she soon learns of its fate with its survival lying in the hands of Strickland and a marine biologist (Michael Stuhlbarg) whose allegiances are murky. It’s up to Elisa and her friends, the lonely Giles (Richard Jenkins), her neighbor and fellow cinema aficionado and her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) to save him from his unfortunate fate.
The film is a delectable feast for the eyes, with frames that bleed in green, algae the builds in the corners and comes from every available crevice. The blues and grays fill the picture, making even the driest of scenes feel as if they’re submerged ten feet under water. The ode to old cinema direction by del Toro mixed with the lush and haunting cinematography by Dan Lausten creates a film that’s timeless in its atmosphere, perfectly content in encapsulating imagery from all eras of filmmaking. It’s del Toro’s Hugo but with a hard R rating, a film that showcases a talented filmmakers love for all things cinematic while also creating a picture entirely singular to his talent. No other director could’ve composed a picture such as this. The eye for beauty in the most unfathomable places along with the twinkling and classical score by master Alexandre Desplat make it every inch the fairy tale it proclaims itself to be.
However, the success of the film wouldn’t be possible without the talent in front of the screen. Shannon is at his unhinged best, measured in one moment but hinting at something sinister bubbling under the surface and fully psychotic in the next. Stuhlbarg, an actor always in need of his due, asks us to be compassionate for a character who any other film would’ve been strictly villainous while Spencer is so good you wish a whole other film could be dedicated to her and her backstory and Jenkins is so utterly heartbreaking in just a few moments. Jones and Hawkins however are the two with most precarious roles, with the former delivering a likeness of grace to a creature that’s supposed to be wild. It’s Hawkins and her performance, however, that the entire film lies it’s potential success on. Luckily, Hawkins can say more with a toothy, crooked smile than many actors can with a monologue and is just spirited enough to make us worry over her innocence and fearless enough to make us worry over her bravery. She is like nothing else this year, so commanding in her stature that we hardly notice that a word never passes her lips.
If there’s any fault to be had, it’s that the relationship between Jones and Hawkins is oddly undefined, as we need to take a few leaps to fully buy their connection, thought the actors once again do a fine job in ultimately selling it. For a film as beautiful and soulful as this, any misstep is a distraction from the overall quality of the picture.
Unfathomably magical, relentlessly worrying and fittingly romantic, The Shape of Water may be del Toro’s most earnest film. Here is a story that embraces feminine sexuality, in all of its forms, condemns blind uniformity and celebrates singularity, while ultimately being a fairy tale about a woman falling in lust with a merman for being able to see beyond what she lacks. It’s both a reassuring tale about how love conquers all while also being a story about the right to freedom, home and personal connection. Sure, the fantastical and horror elements are present, but what makes the film so striking is how breathtakingly human it all is. We all want to be seen as whole and we all want to know unconditional love. The Shape of Water encompasses all that is glorious and ugly about human nature, with some silliness thrown in for equal measure.
This is a reprint from the 2017 Toronto Film Festival. To read further TIFF 2017 coverage, go here.