Director: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon
Length: 2hr 3m
When Guillermo del Toro pitched to Sally Hawkins the role he was writing for her he said: “I am writing a movie for you where you fall in love with a fish-man.” On paper, it seems to be the most unlikely film to be in contention for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and receive the most nominations (13!). But Del Toro is never one to be predictable, and thankfully we do not judge the success of films by how promising it looks on paper.
The Mexican filmmaker’s 10th feature film is a masterpiece of magical realism which follows a mute cleaning lady called Elisa (Hawkins) who stumbles upon a strange creature being detained in the top secret government facility where she works. An intimate relationship blossoms between them; a connection forming from the fact that they are both outsiders in a world which values perfection and uniformity above all else. When the creature’s life is put in danger by the ruthless government agent in charge (Michael Shannon), Elisa and an unlikely band of heroes have to come together to save it from the real inhuman monster. Set in 1960s Baltimore, the film is dripping in style and elegance as it depicts a period which is less distant from the here and now than we would like to think. Racism, homophobia and sexism all rear their ugly heads in uncomfortably familiar and resonant ways.
Hawkins shines with her facial agility and her ability to communicate the most subtle of expressions in the twitch of an eyebrow. This is a role which could not have been played by anyone else and her understated portrayal of Elisa speaks volumes about the calibre of actress she is. Shannon too has to be applauded for his performance which very nearly stole the show. The complexly human villain is so recognizable that it makes him all the more terrifying in his crazed and desperate attempt to crush everything that he cannot make sense of.
As much a heist as it is a B-horror movie, Del Toro synthesizes a multitude of styles and inspirations to create an immersive fairytale world. However, do not be fooled by the thick veil of fantasy which hovers over the opening sequence, this is not your usual fairytale to tell to your kids. As Del Toro makes very clear from the beginning, this is going to be a very sexual and surprising film. He breaks boundaries not just in writing an interspecies relationship between a woman and a fish-lizard-man-thing, but making sexuality one of the many layers to Elisa’s character. She is not a mute orphan to be pitied but a pensive and kind, boiled-egg-loving woman who masturbates in the bath every morning. Even though some of the sexual elements of the love story missed the mark an inch, Del Toro has to be applauded for pushing the boat out. The rich complexity and time given to each character is what elevates the film to the heights of the very best storytelling. Every perfectly formed character arc rings true, creating a satisfyingly meaty and timeless film.
The Shape of Water is a film that Del Toro says he needed to make against the world. The outcasts take centre stage and the greatest villain of all is shown to be the attitude that there is only one way of doing things. This is not just a beautiful story that will excite film aficionados with its artistry, but a message to the people that we are in dire need of.