A FAIRY TALE FOR TROUBLED TIMES.
In 1954, a boy called Guillermo del Toro went to the movies and saw what is now a classic monster movie, Creature From the Black Lagoon. He loved the movie, not just for its thrills but also because he found the leading lady, Julie Adams, beautiful. When he saw her and the monster, he thought, ”I hope they end up together”. At one point, del Toro the grown-up filmmaker was considered for a remake of the movie, but The Shape of Water is a much better idea – a monster movie with heart and a gorgeous visual look that has become his trademark.
In early 1960s Baltimore, the mute Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is working as a janitor at an aerospace research center. When the facility receives a mysterious new discovery, referred to by the military as an ”asset”, it is accompanied by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), a cunning and sadistic man who doesn’t really care about the creature he found in the rivers of South America. To him, the ”asset” might be of interest in the escalating competition with the Soviet Union because of its amphibious qualities… but you don’t really need the creature alive to understand it.
The ”asset” is a humanoid and if you’re not careful he can be very dangerous, as Strickland painfully learns. But when Elisa is left alone with the creature, she approaches him gently, offers a gift, and slowly forges a bond of trust. However, Strickland and the military are beginning to pose a direct threat against the creature…
Taking place during the Cold War
Fans of the director will recognize many ingredients here right away. The story takes place during the Cold War, but fuses that part of history with a fantastical tale, much as del Toro did in the Hellboy films (set during World War II) and his masterful Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), which was set shortly after the Spanish Civil War. There are usually ghosts or other creatures in del Toro’s films, and the amphibious humanoid here looks slightly familiar as it is played by frequent del Toro collaborator Doug Jones. He was very memorable as another amphibious creature in the Hellboy films, and he’s a treat here as the ”asset” – deadly for sure, but also sweet, funny and perhaps even sexy as the story takes a turn for the (even) weird(er) in the movie’s second half.
This is cinematographer Dan Laustsen’s third project together with del Toro, and he’s likely a huge reason why it’s so easy to identify this film as a del Toro project – their most poetic, romantic and at the same time ludicrous scene must be Elisa’s waterlogged attempt to give the creature more space in her bathroom. The film’s greatest performance is delivered by Hawkins as Elisa, a mousy yet passionate woman who is immediately intrigued by the ”asset”. The film is firmly on the side of those who are a little different, including Richard Jenkins’s character, the gay artist who lives next door to Elisa and has a crush on a handsome, younger guy at a diner. Together with Octavia Spencer, who plays Hawkins’s co-worker, they all make a hugely entertaining team, another familiar ingredient from del Toro movies; the director rarely portrays isolated characters.
Shannon is very good as the opposite, a smart but psychopathic Army loyalist, but the actor never turns him into a simple villain; this is a compelling character and Shannon finds little quirks to make him special.
Alexandre Desplat’s music score reinforces the magic of this fairy tale, which becomes increasingly engaging as it goes along. Some of the set pieces will have you on the edge of your seat, especially the creature’s escape from the Baltimore facility.
The Shape of Water 2017-U.S. 119 min. Color. Produced by J. Miles Dale, Guillermo del Toro. Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor. Cinematography: Dan Laustsen. Music: Alexandre Desplat. Production Design: Paul D. Austerberry. Cast: Sally Hawkins (Elisa Esposito), Michael Shannon (Richard Strickland), Richard Jenkins (Giles), Octavia Spencer, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg.
Trivia: Ian McKellen was allegedly considered for Jenkins’s part.
Oscars: Best Picture, Directing, Original Score, Production Design. Golden Globe: Best Director, Original Score. BAFTA: Best Director, Original Music, Production Design.
Venice: Golden Lion.
Last word: “I set it in 1962 specifically, because when people say, ‘let’s Make America Great Again,’ they’re dreaming of that era. It’s an era where the cars had jet fins, the kitchens were automatic. Everything was super-great if you were white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant, but if you were anything else, you were fucked. It hasn’t changed that much.” (Del Toro, Indiewire)