A Fairy Tale For Troubled Times

Guillermo Del Toro

Sally Hawkins
Doug Jones
Michael Shannon
Richard Jenkins
Octavia Spencer
Michael Stuhlbarg

Set in the early 1960’s we are introduced to Elisa Esposito [Hawkins], a mute cleaner at a military facility, and her artist neighbour Giles [Jenkins], both of whom share a love for old movies and romantic musicals. Elisa’s main friend at work is the down-to-earth loquacious Zelda Fuller [Spencer]. Every night they work their way through the high-security facility, cleaning everything after the scientific and military minds have all but vacated the premises. One fateful day a specimen is brought to a containment room, along with the terrifying man who captured it, Colonel Richard Strickland [Shannon]. Neither Elisa nor Zelda care much for the brash, yet deceptively polite, Strickland but one evening, Elisa investigates what is being kept in the tank and comes face to face with an amphibious creature [Jones] who responds to music and her natural kindness. The two form a simple bond but pressures on the scientific team to learn more about the creature threaten their secret budding friendship.

I find it fascinating that the villains and monsters of cinema past are being repackaged as the heroes of this century. The same thing happened in Peter Jackson’s King Kong, where Kong was presented as less of a monstrous, horny beast and more a lonely soul. In terms of plot, Del Toro’s unofficial reworking of The Creature From The Black Lagoon actually has a closer link, in terms of story, to that of its dire sequel, Revenge of the Creature and salvaging anything from that mess is commendable in of itself. But more than the obvious route of simply wanting to see a horror character fall in love with a human, Del Toro’s fantastical plot allegorically applies to all the undesirables of our past; people dubbed by mainstream society as undeserving of happiness: homosexuals, minorities, the disabled, etc. While it’s not exactly subtle, it’s not trying to be. I could easily imagine this film being set in the present day but by showing us a less understanding and tolerant time, allows the film to draw a parallel between something a contemporary audience would find impossibly uncomfortable and something held to the same standards decades ago. Now, not for a minute am I comparing homosexual relationships, racial prejudices or abandonment of the disabled to falling in love with a fish man but the feelings of disdain projected by others is masterfully executed in a way that only cinema can and offers a crushing portrayal of intolerance and arrogance of established societal norms – which is ultimately fantasy/science fiction’s greatest tool.

While very distinctly a Guillermo Del Toro film, littered with beautiful shadow work, a rich colour palate, clockwork mechanics and things in jars everywhere, The Shape Of Water is visually and tonally reminiscent of La Cité Des Enfants Perdus. A feeling magnified by the deep period-appropriate score from Alexandre Desplat with its beautiful, soulful mix of strings the occasional accordion. On top of that, the direction is second to none, everything runs with precision, the tension builds delightfully and the camera movements are beautiful and clever. While I appreciate there is a fair amount of unseen subtle CGI at work, the production design – from the costumes to the sets, to the stunning amphibian man prosthetics – give the film an ageless quality and a grounding in reality that allows us deeper immersion into the more fanciful elements.

In addition to beautiful visuals and an extremely powerful heart beating at its core, this release is rife with fascinating characters. Seemingly everyone has a story and a personality, all the way from the complex lead to a random man at a bus stop with several balloons and a cake missing a slice; there are potential stories everywhere. I would even go one step further and say there isn’t a single weak component on the acting front, merely a sliding scale in different forms of excellence. I’ll admit, that sounds like hyperbole but it’s genuinely difficult to think of any one performance that felt feeble or out of place. To say Doug Jones’ performance is a graceful exercise in bringing horrific beauty to life is a bit of a moot point, that’s a sentiment which could be said of any of his roles and we can all agree, the man possess a physicality which is frankly unworldly. Then we have Sally Hawkins who is so desperately human and utterly compelling; again, drawing that Jean Pierre Jeunet comparison, she feels very evocative of his quirky, esoterically charming leads. The supports around her are equally masterful from Shannon’s bizarre and intimidating Richard Strickland, Stuhlbarg’s caring but suspicious Dr Hoffstetler, Octavia Spencer’s loveable and affable Zelda Fuller and Richard Jenkins’ timid but honourable neighbour Giles; your heart goes out to all of them.. well, except the military men, obviously – their manner is initially presented as pleasant but they’re ultimately the real monsters.

The only downside I could find is that it didn’t exceed my expectations. This may sound like an odd observation and a purely personal one but if you have any familiarity with or understanding of the influences on Del Toro’s work, you’ll know exactly where and how the entire film is going to develop. As with his last two features (Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak), the pastiches and homage materials are clear and you can generally work out the plot as it’s unfolding. I appreciate that’s almost the point of the film, to emulate and replicate the best elements of what came before, while elevating it into something more but in doing so, you never escape the progressional trappings of the narrative. I would really like to mention something covered in the first few shots of the film but unfortunately I cannot without going into spoiler territory – suffice it to say, I could tell how the film would end based on this one thing.

I can’t imagine this film will be for everyone and the rather visceral, unflinching nature of the violence and sexual content may shock some but for the genuinely radiant love story at the centre, this film is a masterwork.

Release Date:
14th February 2018

The Scene To Look Out For:
In one of the film’s boldest choices (and there are plenty of bold choices made) Elisa is desperate to convey to the Amphibian Man the importance of his presence in her life. Frustrated and in a clear state of agony of the barrier between them, the lights fade and a spotlight appears on her. Softly, she mouths out sounds, reciting the words of ** from **. The faint singing builds before exploding into a black and white musical number with Elisa in a ballroom gown on an elaborate set, dancing with the Amphibian Man. What should be a completely laugh-out-loud moment is actually an extremely moving one.

Notable Characters:
While everyone shines in their own way, this film wouldn’t exist as it does without the phenomenal pairing of Doug Jones and Sally Hawkins. The pair deliver something challenging, both for themselves as actors and to audiences, foregoing one of an actor’s main tools of conveying feeling, thought, opinion, etc. They also overcome the absurdity factor effortlessly and at no point did I question the relationship between these two.

Highlighted Quote:
“The only thing I recognise when I look in the mirror are these eyes in this old man’s face”

In A Few Words:
“An undeniably beautiful, heartrending love story and one of Del Toro’s most mature releases to date”

Total Score: