Director: Guillermo del Toro.
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer, David Hewlett, Nick Searcy.
|"This is great and all, but my shoe is sinking."|
Guillermo del Toro loves monsters.
In an interview with Ain't It Cool he talked about his favourites - Frankenstein's monster, the Alien, the Creature from The Black Lagoon, Godzilla, and the Thing - and it's easy to see how the monster movies he loved as a kid have populated his career. Some kind of creature, ghoul or ghost populates each of his films, from his debut Cronos, through his comic book adaptations (Blade II, the Hellboy films), in his greatest film (Pan's Labyrinth) and his worst ones (Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak).
In The Shape Of Water, he poses the question "what if the monster got the girl?". It's a strange question, with weird answers, but it's one del Toro asks with beauty, delicacy and intelligence.
Set during the Cold War and the Space Race, it centres on Hawkins' Eliza, a mute woman who works as a cleaner alongside her best friend Zelda (Spencer) at a US government facility.
There she encounters The Asset (Jones), an amphibious humanoid captured by the US military in the Amazon. The government, personified by villainous G-man Strickland (Shannon) and curious scientist Hoffstetler (Stuhlbarg), want to see if The Asset's physiology can help in America's quest to put a man in space. That will probably require cutting the monster open.
But Eliza has other ideas - she has fallen in love with this Amazonian creature and wants to save him.
The Shape Of Water is a strange film, although when you think about it, it's no weirder than Beauty & The Beast and that's a much-loved fairy tale. Perhaps the only flaw in The Shape Of Water is too many characters are too quick to accept the really odd things that happen. It's jarring, yet somewhat necessary.
After all, this is a fable about acceptance and equality. By setting it in the '60s, and by using a couple of simple key moments, del Toro phrases his story in the context of the civil rights movement. It's subtly done, and nicely done. On top of that is Jenkins' Giles - Eliza's friend who is struggling with all the things that came with being a single older gay man in that era. These things all flow into the film's themes of love, loneliness and humanity.
As with Pan's Labyrinth - del Toro's magnum opus - the film combines its stunning production design with its far-out story to make a modern (though set 50 years ago) fairy tale. But don't be fooled by the niceties, the beautiful music, and the central love story. Like many of del Toro's films, this is violent and often dark, and uses the horrible aspects of human nature to showcase the good ones.
The compelling story and lush visuals would fail with the wrong people in front of the camera, but del Toro has a perfect cast. Hawkins is incredible, making a very believable character out of some fantastical material. She's well supported by the often-under-rated Jenkins, the comic relief of Spencer and the excellent Stuhlbarg.
Almost stealing the show is Shannon, who is so good at menacing. He doesn't disappoint here - Strickland is utterly repulsive and hissable while still being a fascinatingly well-rounded character. Special mention also to Jones, the unsung muse of del Toro who again does a great job layered in prosthetics. It's fair to say the film would not be as affecting if they'd made the creature a CG creation, so full points to Jones and the design team.
(On a side note, I can't help but wonder if del Toro ever envisioned this as a Hellboy spin-off starring the similarly fish-like Abe Sapien (also played by Jones). Despite the similarity in the characters, that would have robbed this film of its naivety and lumbered it with unnecessary baggage. It's great that this stands alone as a parable for modern and past times.)
Pan's Labyrinth is better, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Get Out may have been more worthy winners at this year's Oscars, but there is no denying the power, beauty and craft that have gone into The Shape Of Water. It is a strangely fascinating tale, and one deserving of making del Toro the third Mexican in five years to win the best director Oscar.