“I do not fail. I deliver.”
We all love fairy tales. Whether it’s watching Disney movies as a child, hypnotized by the magic on screen. Then down the line pretending we are far too “cultured” for those kiddy films while watching Studio Ghibli. Before finally coming back around to Disney once more with a hefty dose of nostalgia, it’s an inescapable truth that these stories affect us in a particular and stick with us for the forseeable. However, it’s almost certainly safe to say that no one loves fairy tales quite as much as Guillermo Del Toro. A director who has always shown great affection for the ghosts, monsters and all manner of creatures that feature in his films, Del Toro’s movies exude passion and love. A fact that has never been more pronounced than in his latest, perhaps greatest, fairy tale, The Shape of Water.
Set slap bang in the middle of Cold War America, Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mute human woman, working as a janitor at a government facility. Though she has friends, her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), that does not mean she doesn’t feel the painful pang of loneliness from time to time. That is until she meets a kindred spirit, who just so happens to be an amphibious humanoid being held captive at the facility. Of course true love never runs smooth and many barriers are put up to block their unique relationship, but can anything really be strong enough to stop love?
It’s a tale as old as time at its core, evoking the very best of Disney with the seemingly meek princess, a faraway land (the 1960s) and a misunderstood love interest. But The Shape of Water adds, changes and twists so many different elements and then magically manages to bring them all back together in order to create a spellbindingly beautiful piece of cinema.
Sally Hawkins is undoubtedly the big heart of the film. Though mute, her expressions convey so much with so little, she brings an emotional intensity that cannot be taught. The character of Giles could very easily have come across as an outdated stereotype if not for Del Toro and the masterful matter of fact delivery that Richard Jenkins excels at, you will just want to give the man a great big hug.
Now onto the monsters. Michael Shannon is well known for playing the bad guy who looks like he could pop at any moment. Here though, while utterly terrifying and spouting biblical references, he also manages to become one of the most nuanced, layered and fascinating villains in a good long while.
The “asset” himself, played by Doug Jones (who is certainly no stranger to long hours in the make-up chair) gives a performance that only Doug Jones could. It’s otherworldly but still retains that relatable connection to humanity. Then there is the outstanding costuming/make up work that is delightfully detailed, though no doubt laborious to apply it has easily cemented its spot in the pantheon of great movie creatures already.
The production design as a whole is splendid. The actual sets, that are filled with a mixture of architectural styles, a big emphasis on colour (especially green) and these beautifully huge rain sleeked windows feel very real and lived in. Almost as if you could reach out and feel the texture on your fingertips.
There is also themes of decay and rejuvenation that seeps into the world around the characters; Elisa and Zelda being caretakers who “take care” of others and are often surrounded by warm, natural colours. While Michael Shannon’s deteriorating mental and physical state can be a gruesome sight, recreated in the harsh, unnatural metals around him.
The score by Alexandre Desplat is one of the most memorable in recent years. Like his music for The Grand Budapest Hotel it’s filled with melancholy but also lifted by a playful quality.
This is an ode not just to the Old Hollywood of monster movies and musicals, but to the power of cinema altogether. Elisa lives above a movie theater, moments of affection are interspersed with shots of silver screen, connecting the two and one particularly memorable scene has a character simply looking up in pure awe of its majesty.
The Shape of Water may very well have you on the verge of tears throughout. An adult fairy tale that is full of magical surprises and that is as warm and lovable as its creator.