Guillermo del Toro has pulled off that rare feat, mainstream critical acclaim for a pure and simple genre film. The Shape of Water is a fairy tale, a charming and arresting fable of love and fate, and one can only hope that its awards success triggers more such delightful experiments to be financed.
Of course, for del Toro this is hardly a radical departure – his mastery of fantasy has been a feature of the last decade, though it has rarely been so lauded. Fans of Pan’s Labyrinth will recognise that film’s unsettling tone at times, and the Hellboy films’ Abe Sapien is a clear precursor of the ‘monster’ at this film’s heart. That erudite figure was played by Doug Jones, who reprises an amphibian role here and again summons an otherworldly, animal skittishness and fundamental vulnerability that endears.
The other half of this love story is Sally Hawkins’s Elisa, a mute cleaner in 1950s Baltimore who works nights in a clandestine laboratory. When the merman is brought in, she instantly feels a connection and pity for it. Her efforts to help the alien are spiritedly abetted by Octavia Spencer as Zelda, her well-meaning and abused colleague, and Richard Jenkins as Giles, a similarly undervalued and ignored neighbour that may have been Elisa’s first project. Elisa and her allies are unequivocally the good guys – victims and underdogs whether by virtue of race, sexuality or disability.
To offer their counterpoint, the ever-terrific Michael Shannon stalks through the film as a glowering and aggressive monument to masculinity with a proud sense of his own manhood that is undimmed by literal disfigurement. His rages are frightful, as dark as Elisa’s charity and kindness are light. Yet Elisa is not cowed by his toxicity and has an impressively and reassuringly solid sense of her own power and, indeed, sexuality.
Del Toro’s fairy tales are often punctured by violence and body horror, and mature themes abound here, too. From Elisa’s timed morning masturbation onward we are reminded that our characters are not children, and the stakes of their game are significant, with the Cold War escalating in back- and foreground. We are treated to maimings and gruesome wounds, as del Toro weaves this story through with occasionally gothic and gory notes. It is a heady mixture, suffusing the viewer with vivid imagery.
More basically, though, it is the central love story that offers us the fulfilment we seek. As Elisa and her lover grow close, their tenderness is achingly portrayed. Hawkins is on superb form, coy and knowing but naturally afraid often and justifiably. Her other half’s mostly serene attitudes are bedazzling.
The Shape of Water is a simply lovely film that does not aim higher than it ought, and consequently fulfils its goals. Del Toro is at the peak of his powers, and it is thoroughly gratifying to see him rewarded with merited adulation.