Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Stars: Sally Hawking, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Nick Searcy, David Hewlett.
The Shape Of Water is a bold and surprisingly moving mash up of science fiction, 50s and 60s creature feature, fantasy, cold war thriller, beguiling romance, politics, science, prejudice, forbidden love and sexual identity. It is visionary Mexican born filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro’s best film since 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth. However, a healthy suspension of disbelief is often required.
Written by Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor (a writer and producer on tv’s Game Of Thrones, etc) The Shape Of Water is an allegorical Beauty And The Beast like fairy tale about an unusual friendship that develops between marginalised characters. The film was largely inspired by 1954’s Creature Of The Black Lagoon, one of his favourite films.
The film is set inside the top-secret Occam Aerospace research facility somewhere in Baltimore in the 1960s. Tough head of security Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) is conducting research on a mysterious amphibious creature (played under layers of makeup by Doug Jones, Del Toro’s go to man for playing strange creatures) that was captured in the jungles of South America. Strickland is probing the creature, whom he refers to as their “asset”, and using a cattle prod to deliver electric shocks. Strickland’s own boss General Hoyt (Nick Searcy, from Three Billboards, etc) wants to dissect the creature and use its body to help give the US an advantage against the Russians in the space race. Hoyt is typical of the arrogant and ignorant American that seeks to destroy what it doesn’t understand.
Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute and shy cleaning lady at the facility, forms a connection with the creature, who is clearly intelligent, and secretly spends time with him in the facility. Abused as a young orphan, she develops an empathy for the creature. She communicates with him via sign language; she also feeds him boiled eggs and plays music to him while she eats her sandwiches at lunch time. Elisa than hatches a desperate scheme to rescue the creature from captivity. Reluctantly caught up in her scheme is Zelda (Octavia Spencer, from The Help, Hidden Figures, etc) her outspoken and feisty colleague; Giles (Richard Jenkins), her neighbour, a closeted and out of work illustrator who lives with his cats and watches old Hollywood musicals on his black and white television; and Bob (Michael Stuhlbarg, recently seen in Call Me By Your Name, etc), a scientist with conflicted loyalties.
With the exception of the malevolent Strickland, all of the main characters here are sympathetic and likeable. Hawkins is very much an underappreciated actress who has delivered some stellar performances in films like Happy Go Lucky, Blue Jasmine, and last year’s Maudie, but this is one of her finest performances to date. She is especially good in a complex and three-dimensional role that requires her to convey a range of emotions and ideas without the use of words. Every gesture and expression resonates strongly. She brings a hint of vulnerability to her performance.
Spencer brings her usual sassy persona to her performance here as the supportive Zelda. Jones, a former contortionist who has played creatures in a number of Del Toro’s films, brings a measure of humanity and empathy to his performance as the soulful eyed and intelligent creature, and elicits our sympathy. He shares a palpable and heart-breaking chemistry with Hawkins. His character is created entirely from practical makeup and prosthetics, without a hint of CGI. Shannon is terrific as the facility’s vicious head of security, and he projects his character’s cruel and driven persona effortlessly. And in a role originally intended for Ian McKellen, Jenkins is touching and sympathetic with his performance as the closeted Giles, looking for a connection in a fairly cruel world that has little time for outsiders.
Del Toro and his production team, led by designer Paul Austerberry, have done a superb job of capturing the aesthetic of the period. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen (Crimson Peak, etc) has shot the film in a stylised colour palette that is evocative of noir films of the past. Del Toro also shows his love of old cinema classics through some clips shown on television, and the film is steeped in old Hollywood tropes. Eliza and Giles live in apartments above the Orpheum, a grand old cinema, and the films showing at the cinema also subtly reinforce some of the film’s themes and motifs. And water itself is a powerful image that recurs throughout the film. The enigmatic title itself comes from a poem that is quoted at the end.