Bold and Free, The Shape of Water is Del Toro’s Most Emotionally Mature Film Yet
It’s easy to fetishise directors like Guillermo del Toro. As is often the case with auteurs (Scorsese, Kubrick, Tarantino etc.) it’s tempting to overlook the hundreds of people involved in making a film and heap all the praise at the doorstep of one visionary. But while it no doubt took several villages to bring del Toro’s latest, The Shape of Water, into being, it’s still hard not to see the end result as a director at the height of his powers – bold, free and completely himself.
The Shape of Water follows Elisa, a mute cleaner at a laboratory in 1960s Baltimore. When, one night, a tank is wheeled in containing a mysterious amphibian creature, Elisa’s humdrum routine is up-ended. While the government plans to dissect him and Soviet spies plot to abduct him, Elisa is busy falling head over heels in love with him.
The clearest sign that we’re dealing with an incredibly assured director is the fact that a film with such a bonkers premise manages to be so cohesive. In other hands its myriad ingredients would struggle to hold together. Del Toro, however, manoeuvres through them with ease, making this far more than some novelty flick about a woman getting down and dirty with a fish.
This film is many things. It’s a touching (but never soppy) romance. It’s a stylish Cold War thriller. It’s a B-movie monster caper. At points, it even veers into musical comedy. It follows recognisable genre beats but fuses them together to fashion something new, weaving its disparate elements together into an elegant fairy tale.
The resulting completeness of tone makes even the strangest aspects of the plot feel seamless. The Shape of Water moves to its own logic, helped in no small measure by its gorgeous visual design. From Elisa’s creaky apartment above a movie theatre to the jade labs her gill-covered beau is secreted away in, del Toro’s world is believably realised down to the finest detail.
With its virtuoso displays of acting, cinematography, music and effects, then, The Shape of Water is far from simply a director’s show
Sally Hawkins is a magnetic lead, etching every ounce of Elisa’s loneliness and longing wordlessly across her face. Refreshingly, the film doesn’t shy away from her sexuality either – her attraction is as physical as it is emotional. Her fishy leading man (played by long-time del Toro collaborator Doug Jones) is human enough for us to empathise with, but maintains an edge of finger-chomping, cat-decapitating savageness. This makes their relationship dangerous, bizarre and utterly captivating.
Elisa is anchored by co-worker Zelda (a charming Octavia Spencer) and loveably neurotic neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins). They’re all ‘others’ in some way – a mute, a black woman and a closeted gay man – who team up to save the ultimate ‘other’ from a system incapable of seeing his humanity. This affection for the disregarded souls of the world makes The Shape of Water pertinent as well as escapist, demonstrating how fantasy can be used to reflect back our own world.
There are parallels, here, to Pan’s Labyrinth, which also used fantastical monsters and battles between innocent heroes and jaded villains to comment on real-world anxieties. The Shape of Water, however, graduates from the adolescent fears of Pan’s Labyrinth to adult themes of love, prejudice and desire. It’s arguably del Toro’s most emotionally mature film yet – a feast for the heart as well as the eyes.
With its virtuoso displays of acting, cinematography, music and effects, then, The Shape of Water is far from simply a director’s show. Ultimately, however, it all hangs together because of the unique and magical tone engineered by del Toro. If this goes down as his masterpiece, it will be thoroughly deserved.
About the author
Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.
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