THE SHAPE OF WATER
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenwriter: Guillermo del Toro & Vanessa Taylor
Runtime: 123 mins.
Australian Release Date: 18 January, 2018
Previewed at: Verona Cinemas, Paddington, Sydney, on 18 December 2018.
There are a number of strange creatures and one monster in Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s new film - in fact, the movie itself is a strange creature called The Shape Of Water. Although the film is hard to pin down, it’s far from shapeless. Set during the Cold War between the USSR and the USA, it touches many nerves and passes comment on many provocative issues (most of which are, regrettably, still contemporary), but at its heart is a moving love story between two outsiders. Already awarded at the Golden Globes for Best Direction and Best Original Score, it will definitely be a contender in multiple categories at the forthcoming Oscars, and could well pick up a few more golden statuettes. It seems destined for gold, having also won the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival.
It’s 1962 and Elisa Esposito (a glowing Sally Hawkins) is a cleaner at a secret government laboratory where strange things are going on. She’s mute but has no trouble communicating in sign language with her gay neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her best friend and colleague, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who also cleans at the lab. One day a sealed, cylindrical, water-filled container is brought in to a room where the two women are working; Elisa, intrigued, moves in for a closer look and is startled to see a webbed hand pressed against the glass before she is hurriedly ordered from the room. Soon she learns that the mysterious creature (played by actor and trained mime Doug Jones) is being studied by Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg, in a very different role to his recent stint in Call Me By Your Name) and that the laboratory is under the control of the secretive and creepy Richard Strickland (the ever reliable Michael Shannon). Elisa starts spending her lunch break near the amphibious beast, even sharing food with it, and a bond begins to form between these two silent beings, so when she witnesses it getting tortured by Strickland she realises that something drastic has to be done.
Del Toro has said, “I wanted to create a beautiful, elegant story about hope and redemption as an antidote to the cynicism of our times. I wanted this story to take the form of a fairy tale in that you have a humble human being who stumbles into something grander and more transcendental than anything else in her life. And then I thought it would be a great idea to juxtapose that love against something as banal and evil as the hatred between nations, which is the Cold War, and the hatred between people due to race, colour, ability and gender.” He and his co-screenwriter, Vanessa Taylor, have certainly got the fairy tale part right and, though slightly flawed, the script also strikes blows against sexism, racism, sexual harassment and homophobia. Alexandre Desplat’s dreamy score and Dan Laustsen’s floaty camerawork augment the storybook feel of the tale.
The ensemble cast is terrific, especially Hawkins. She captures the slightly preoccupied expression of Elisa as she travels through her silent world, often invisible to those around her. When the amphibian-man enters her world, she feels ‘seen’ for the first time and Hawkins adeptly lets us in on this transformation. Jenkins is poignant as another lonely creature looking for love in all the wrong places and Shannon is thoroughly scary as the real monster of the piece. The aquatic being looks very similar to the one in Jack Arnold’s 1954 cult classic Creature From The Black Lagoon and is played by Doug Jones, a frequent collaborator with del Toro, who worked with the director on Pan’s Labyrinth and the Hellboy series. Here, Jones artfully portrays the bewilderment of the intelligent, but wild, waterman who reciprocates the emotion he’s engendering in his human saviour. It’s a powerful performance.
The Shape Of Water is a beautiful, exotic and emotional construction: the fertile creation of one of the most original minds in the business. Don’t be afraid to enter its murky waters.