If I was to tell you about Guillermo Del Toro’s new film what would I say.
As the father of dark fantasy, Guillermo Del Toro knows how to bring alive the illusive wonderlands and nightmares we can relish and transform them into wonderful poignant crafts of insight and meaning, and The Shape of Water is no exception. With its journey from Venice to Toronto, The Shape of Water has now hit the London Film Festival, now within reach of this exuberant critic. I had only the budget to see one film at this year’s festival and I most certainly made a wise decision.
During the Cold War conflict of the 60s, a mute but hearing Eliza (Sally Hawkins) works as a cleaner at a secret government facility, where she becomes drawn to the new specimen: a mysterious marine creature (Doug Jones). While Eliza begins to fall in love with it, the facility head Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), only desires to take the creature apart for experimental advantage against the Russians. Eliza’s bond with the creature soon begins to effect those around her: her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), work college Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and scientist Robert Hoffsteder (Michael Stuhbarg) What is amazing profound about Del Toro’s latest work is its eccentric visualisation in reflection of the political and social conceptions of the past , but also today. The most centralised end is the the treatment of those who are different. Directly dealing with the fantasy of other species but intertwined with racial treatment relevant to the time in which the film is set, and then of course against the back drop of the national conflicts, but then also the value of those with deficiencies, as portrayed by Sally Hawkins.
More distant from his darker tones in, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Crimson Peak, but not far from the surreal fantasy, The Shape of Water becomes more grounded than previous Del Toro films, and diversely more lighter and funnier. With frequent laughs and jokes on screen, the romantic fantasy is a much light hearted watch, of course not without its moment of bloody violence but at a lower volume. What may be hard for some audiences to get their head around, is this idea of an inter-species relations and with the astonishing design of the creature itself becomes something more than just a fish costume. The bond and sexuality of this romance is a significant thread to the film and is one that featured heavily with its repetitive moments of adult content. But what Del Toro explores its is real beauty in love and within the context of the film it does becomes something remarkable.
Sally Hawkins is exceptional in her vigorous performance as the mute Eliza, with dynamic sign language and spirited facial expressions, we see the isolated heart of the “princess without voice” which makes her connection to this solitary creature all the more real. Opposite her is the confident physical actor Doug Jones, manning the rubber suit of the creature in a brilliant bodily performance, outdoing his previous collaborative performances with Del Toro. Then Michael Shannon sensationally brings the real monster to the tale in Strickland, the dominating Colonel facing his battle in masculinity as well as with the creature. Shannon gives one of the best performances of his career, keeping with that classic fairy tale juxtaposition of man being the real monster.
As with all Del Toro’s dark fantasies, it all becomes about the characters. Eliza reaching out to another like herself. Strickland trying to maintain his power and masculinity in his skirmish with the creature and Eliza. Hoffsetider being caught between to sides but seeking his own right, and Giles trying to find his significance back in society.
As never fails with a Del Toro films is the signature production design that brings to life these magnificent worlds. The Shape of Water although is not full Del Tory fairy tale land, does have a very extraordinary construct of the real world, from Eliza’s apartment to the secret facility, echoing the true Gothic universe of the real world. Opening in a momentous title sequence, Del Toro literally floods the screen in ravishing visual effects and segments. Only more so combined with the inescapable talents of cinematographer: Dan Laustsen, swiftly moving from one room to the next in a mythical immersive experience alluring us furthermore into the depths of the story and art work of the film.
The Shape of Water is a wonderfully weird, quirky, heart-warming, extraordinary piece of cinema. For fans who have found Del Toro’s previous works too dark or scary, will be delighted by this much more charming fantasy.
Tolerance for All Colors, Creeds, Species and Moviegoers Alike
Every now and then a work of cinema arrives in theaters that completely challenges one’s conception of what a film can be. A groundbreaking technical and thematic masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy director Guillermo del Toro accomplishes something that on paper seems impossible; what is essentially a comedic Cold War body horror musical romance between a mute woman and a mermaid. Not only does the modern master of movie monsters blend such an eclectic variety of genres into a single storyline, but he also does so without any sense of convolution or confusion, exhibiting a technical mastery that allows the film to seamlessly flow between its fantastical elements and social realism as well as stand as a work of art on its own. What Del Toro’s latest film offers is not merely a stylistic spectacle, but also a thoughtful meditation on the nature of love and its ultimate lack of boundaries.
Before directing my appraisals towards the film’s exceptional ensemble performances, thematic resonance and technical ingenuity, I feel it necessary to discuss what’s on the surface. The film’s production design is, simply put, outstanding. Set within the cultural bubble of early 1960s Baltimore, you can tell del Toro feels a genuine love for the aesthetic of the era, between the beauty of the grandiose operatic cinema to the humorously polite manner in which the characters converse with one another. This is contrasted by the grim color palette of the facility that Eliza (Sally Hawkins) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer) work in, a white male-dominated hierarchy in which minorities are abused like slaves. Even outside of the facility, del Toro never shies away from the darkness behind this maintained superficial beauty. Racism, sexism and homophobia are ever present as shop owners reject minorities to preserve their all-white family aesthetic and Col. Strickland (Michael Shannon) exerts his dominance over the wife of his nuclear family in a truly sickening way. However, unlike most period pieces, there is no protest or fight for change. The superficial world remains solid through every horrible injustice committed, for these characters live in the 60s, where there is an understanding (or at least a belief) that things won’t change. The characters accept these injustices for it’s all they can do, strengthening and almost excusing the central interspecies love story so that it resonates all the more deeply.
From a technical perspective, the film truly mimics the element of its title. It’s camera-work floats towards and around its characters while its transitions flow into one another like water. Del Toro maintains such a rhythmic pace via his use of editing, usually cutting on sound to craft a film that is as auditory as it is visual. The film’s ensemble of is just as stunning. Against the backdrop of the 1960s del Toro’s protagonists consist of different social outcasts, placing the authoritative white male in the role of an antagonist who takes full advantage of his societal superiority complex. Octavia Spencer as Zelda (Eliza’s black co-worker) and Richard Jenkins as Giles (Eliza’s gay neighbor) provide much of the film’s comedic relief through their simultaneous embodiment and subversion of the era’s stereotypes. While one could argue that their roles of the closeted gay confidante and the black maid are cliché, both characters display a strong awareness for their prejudiced status, with both resolving to disobey the conventions society has imposed on them; a decision that sets them apart from most portrayals of 1960s minorities. Michael Shannon offers another compelling performance as an abusive sociopath, and some of his actions (such as the aforementioned scene with his wife) impressively disgust in a world in which audiences are so desensitized to violence and on-screen abuse.
Supporting characters aside, the standout of this film is without question Sally Hawkins, whose performance as a mute woman forces upon her the unique challenge of making an audience empathize with her in spite of a lack of speech. She does this through her playfulness; her love of art, particularly music and musicals, the way she tap dances her way to work when no one is watching, and palpable emotions that require no voice to express. Her sign language offers one of the film’s most spectacular visuals, and del Toro knows this, choosing to place the subtitles as close to her hands as possible so as not to detract too much attention.
Though more attention could have been diverted to Doug Jones as the Asset, and the creature’s general quirky mannerisms, it is the scenes that he shares with Eliza that are the film’s most tender. Throughout Eliza’s interactions with her two friends (Zelda and Giles), while it’s established that the two characters care about her deeply, we get the sense that her muteness is being taken advantage of, as both endlessly vent their personal struggles and anxieties to her with no one to cut them off. Such is the reason for Eliza’s infatuation with the Asset, itself a speechless creature that doesn’t see Eliza as incomplete in the slightest. When the two finally bring their relationship to the next level, like the supporting cast, we the audience have no problem accepting it. Both employ wildly different means of communication; Eliza’s an organized series of gestures whereas the Asset’s are primal and animalistic. However, when the two finally bring their relationship to the next level, like the supporting cast, we the audience have no problem accepting it.
The Shape of Water is hardly a fantasy. Ultimately, it’s a film about tolerance. An allegory for all of history’s outcasts that attempts to shine a light on the conditions from which real monsters are born. Like it’s moral message of acceptance, del Toro extends this inclusion to his audience, accepting fans of all genres, offering something truly enjoyable for every kind of moviegoer. The Shape of Water is an extremely confident mesh of comedy, romance, horror, drama and musicals, with enough technical wizardry to impress any cinephile.