Those who decry the “unoriginal” state of mainstream cinema – and it’s sometimes understandable to do so – would do well to refrain from continually forgetting about Guillermo del Toro. Out and out one of the most inventive minds the fantasy genre has ever seen, del Toro’s vision might well be the perfect one for the pantheon of cinema as it presently stands. For, in the face of endless remakes, reboots, and superhero movies (there are a whopping three or four a year now – far too many for the broadsheet crowd), what makes more sense than for a director to take on niche or fantastical genre tropes and give it a new and unique spin through the crevices of his own imagination? What, after all, was Crimson Peak if not del Toro’s Hammer flick? What was Pan’s Labyrinth if not his Alice in Wonderland? Pacific Rim if not his Toho movie? Understandably, then, Guillermo del Toro taking on The Creature from The Black Lagoon isn’t without pretty obvious precedent. And the only thing with more precedent then, is that it’s a terrific tear-jerking R-rated romantic adult fairytale, to boot.
Racking up more Academy Award noms than literally anything else on offer this year, this touching tale takes del Toro to the height of fifties Cold War paranoia, and, specifically, to a nondescript US government research facility in which Sally Hawkins’ mute Eliza serves as a lowly janitor. Largely ignored by the men and generally given shoot shrift by the women of the facility (save for protective friend and supervisor Zelda – Octavia Spencer), Eliza soon finds the connection she’s always been longing for when the lab becomes the new home to a mysterious South American manphibian (Doug Jones) being experimented on for his scientific secrets. As the non-verbal bond between the two outcasts continues to deepen, however, pressures on the increasingly unstable G-man Strickland (Michael Shannon) push Eliza to try and rescue her new soulmate – enlisting Zelda and neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) to help aid her in saving her unnamed love from his inevitable fate on the mortuary table.
From literally the opening frame of The Shape of Water, an uncompromising vision is apparent. With del Toro’s signature embrace of otherworldly creature design and practical FX, to Crimson Peak DP Dan Laustsen’s gorgeous visuals and Alexandre Desplat’s haunting score, the stage is set for a film truly like no other. Unafraid to lean into both its fairy tale aspirations and wholeheartedly adult sensibilities in equal measure, there’s a distinct success found in the manner in which The Shape of Water layers its darker and unflinching horrors in such a way as to ask its audience to believe unquestionably in the love story that seeps in through the cracks in between them. It’s a tough ask, and though many directors would see their work collapse inward under such weight, the strength of del Toro’s filmmaking lives up to that task – though whether he’d manage quite so gracefully without the astonishing talents of stars Hawkins and Jones (both of whom, let us not forget, are playing this mute) is anybody’s guess.
Hawkins – always the overlooked star of anything she graces with her talents – brings the house down with a terrific lead performance as Eliza. Mousy but determined, downtrodden but full of fire, Hawkins can do more with an eyebrow here than many actors can even dream, and, in the face of a physical performer as sublimely intriguing as Doug Jones has always been, she holds her own and then some – elevating what could be quite an inelegant clumsy role into something far more profound.
Jones, meanwhile, delivers the unmatched performance his career to date has thrived upon. Surely more at home in rubber skin than his own at this point, Jones is a marvel in every frame – continuing his crusade to be to make-up and prosthetics what Andy Serkis is to mo-cap. As good as each are, though, it’s the physical bond between them that really sells the show – their intimacy a palpable force that permeates every moment they share on screen and even those that they don’t. The chemistry’s undeniable, and that it’s between two performers this astonishing in their roles is absolutely worth celebrating.
That’s not to take away from the supporting cast, however; with Jenkins, Shannon, Spencer, and Michael Stuhlbarg each serving as potential scene-stealers in their own right, yet never being especially showy about it in any sense. Shannon, in particular, gets something of a Cronenbergian body horror role to play in proceedings – even asserting himself proudly as a younger stand-in for Christopher Walken roles, should he pursue it – and yet even that performance is perfectly refined and reigned in to fit as a perfect cog within the machinations of del Toro’s sterling and rather uplifting tale.
Never quite a feel-good film, yet one built largely on explorations of love and the various forms of beauty and how we might perceive it, it’s admirable that del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor pack quite as much into The Shape of Water as they do – with Cold War paranoia, and issues of race, gender, and discrimination packed in for good measure without every once feeling like you’re in for a particularly stuffed ride. It’s a masterful and moving work by a bonafide auteur, one which will captivate and enchant at every turn, and a crown jewel amongst the already shining works of a terrific filmmaker.