Describe The Shape of Water and it sounds creepy and perverse. The story of a mute woman who falls in love with a slimy, jagged-toothed sea monster should be the set-up to a low-budget porno-version of The Creature from the Black Lagoon rather than a front-runner for 2018’s Best Picture Oscar. Watch it, though, and you’ll be mesmerised by an emotionally absorbing story that delicately balances terror and tenderness into a heartbreaking tale of love, loss and liberation that might just be Guillermo del Toro’s best film since Pan’s Labyrinth.
Set in 1960s Baltimore, the air is thick with Cold War paranoia. Race riots are raging across the city and government spies seem to lurk around every corner while the US and the Russians bid to out-do each other in a race for military superiority. Into this bleak, clandestine world steps Sally Hawkins’ Elisa. The mute cleaner of a secret underground lab, she splits her days between absorbing the troubles of her closeted gay neighbour (Richard Jenkins) and brassy African American colleague (Octavia Spencer). It’s no wonder she needs to start the day with a bit of ‘bath-time release‘.
When Elisa learns that her superiors are keeping a newly-discovered sea monster imprisoned in a water tank, she finds herself inexplicably attracted to the creature and slowly forms a close bond with him. Their blossoming romance is threatened by the arrival of a ruthless government agent (Michael Shannon, excellent as a vile and vicious man of power) who wants to rip the creature to pieces to learn its secrets. Together with the facility’s kindly head scientist, Elisa hatches a plan to set the creature free before the government is finished with its experiments.
With such a fantastical premise, the visuals are surprisingly unpretentious. The sight of raindrops dancing in time to the glide of fingertips or an entire apartment submerged in bath water are merely whimsical flourishes to an otherwise wistfully elegant tale. Like Pan’s Labyrinth, these flights of fantasy and romance are punctured by moments of horror and violence to remind us of the cold, brutal, world that exists right outside our windows. The real monsters of this story are the power-hungry men who seek to exploit those who are weak and vulnerable in order to satisfy their own greed. Sadly, modern parallels shouldn’t be too hard to find.
Yet del Toro is in a far too hopeful a mood to let fear and oppression be the overriding emotions of his film, and The Shape of Water bursts with the deeply-felt chemistry between its two leads.
Doug Jones, as he so often does, projects great swells of pathos through the scales and gills of his ethereal creature. Meanwhile, Hawkins is utterly captivating as Elisa. Without uttering a word, she creates a complex, endearing character – one who’s quiet, intelligent and passionately forceful – through physical gestures alone. Just one subtle tweak to the muscles in her beautifully expressive face can convey more emotion and meaning than most actors can muster during an Aaron Sorkin-penned monologue. So believable is their tenderness and affection, you never once question that a woman would fall in love with a cat-eating sea monster. Their genuine bond keeps us in a thrall even as the plot plunges towards despair and destruction.
And plunge it most certainly does, as Elisa and her band of forgotten souls stage a daring escape from the facility, culminating in a gut-wrenchingly tense climax that will shake the tear ducts of even the most hardened cinemagoer. It might sound strange, but The Shape of Water has to be seen to be truly understood, in all its boundless beauty.
Runtime: 123 mins (approx.)
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenwriters: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Stars: Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer