Guillermo del Toro has made a career out of trying to convince everyone to view monsters and ghosts the same way that he does. They're just the same as us, but different. In fact, sometimes the very things that make them monstrous or scary are the things that make them a little bit better than your average Joe. The Shape Of Water may very well be his most overt guide to loving monsters yet, taking it quite literally.
Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, a mute woman who works as a janitor at a secret research facility. She spends her workdays alongside her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and when at home she sometimes enjoys the company of Giles (Richard Jenkins), an elderly, lonely gay man. There's excitement in the workplace when a bipedal amphibious humanoid specimen (Doug Jones) is brought in, under the watchful eyes of Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), and Elisa finds herself forming a strong connection with the creature. Some people might be happy to see that development, Strickland isn't one of them.
While it's certainly a very derivative film in many ways (from the obvious "gillman" movies to the tone and visual palate of Jean-Pierre Jeunet), The Shape Of Water takes the familiar and mixes it into something that feels quite unique. I would say that those looking to hammer the film for the range of influences on display aren't considering how well Del Toro has placed everything. Never one to skimp on the detailing of the worlds he wants to let viewers into, the director, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Vanessa Taylor from his own story, somehow manages to fill every scene with little touches and thematic strands without having it all feel too busy and overdone.
Dan Laustsen, the Director of Photography, deserves a special mention, because there are a number of scenes here that stand out as some of the most beautiful from last year (and I know I am terrible for not often singling out the DPs in my reviews), and Alexandre Desplat has come up with an appropriately beautiful score to accompany those visuals, with everything coming together to make a film that feels very much like a Del Toro film in content and theme, while moving away from his standard visual palette.
Hawkins gives a wonderful central performance, as does the prosthetically-covered Doug Jones. The two manage to say so much without actually speaking. Spencer and Jenkins both give great supporting turns, and chatter away to Hawkins throughout the film, and Shannon is the villain of the piece that the film requires (allowing him to have a lot of fun with some over the top moments). Michael Stuhlbarg is another good presence, but it's easy to forget the other people involved during the moments that show Hawkins and Jones wordlessly connecting with one another.
The biggest problem with The Shape Of Water stems from the biggest plus point. This feels very much like a film Del Toro has had in his mind for years, something he was just waiting to finally be allowed to do. Now, having been given permission, he loads it up with no small amount of self-indulgence. That is fine when it comes to the detailing and style of the film, but it also means that the runtime feels just a bit too long, there are one or two extra plot points that didn't really need to be in there, and some of the quirkier moments don't work.
Those minor mis-steps, however, are nowhere near irritating enough to detract from the gorgeous and uplifting experience that the film provides. It's not up there with the very best films we've already had from Guillermo del Toro, but it's leagues ahead of many other films that you'll see this year.
There's a lovely book available here.
Americans can order the film here.