This summers delightful surprise is Guillermo Del Torro’s The Shape of Water. Anyone familiar with Del Torro’s work will know that he has a visionary eye for melding together the stuff of day dreams with the stuff of nightmares, creating films that are as beautiful as they are disturbing. As with his 2006 dark fairytale Pan’s Labyrinth, his new film The Shape of Water delves deep into dark places, where the monsters dwell.
The film has garnered great critical acclaim, with Del Torro winning Best Director for the film at the 75th Golden Globe Awards. What makes this creature-feature so remarkable is that it is a complete surprise from start to finish. Thus, be aware that this is a film best served fresh to your eyeballs, and spoilers lie ahead if you wish to keep reading.
As with Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone and Hellboy, Del Torro likes to set his fantasies in past realities. This time, he chose 1960’s Cold War America. The film begins with this whimsical, quirky sensibility that is reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie. There is a bright, colourful, strangeness to everything. We meet mute cleaning lady Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) who has her daily routine down to a fine art. She lives in a flat above a cinema, and her best friend is her next door neighbour, a struggling painter who talks enough for the two of them.
Elisa works nights cleaning a large high-security facility, along side her supportive friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer). It appears that their days are typically devoid of excitement, yet they are happy. However, things start to turn upside-down when Elisa and Zelda are charged with mopping up a gory pool of blood in one area of the facility. This is when Elisa first encounters a very important asset that has been brought in by the military: a shackled, and fierce amphibian man. The creature is a more aesthetically appealing Swamp Thing, played by Doug Jones who also portrayed a similar creature in the Hellboy movies.
The amphibian man is a frightening creature, yet chained and beaten he is not the real monster of the film. There is a secondary monster, and he is truly terrifying. Michael Shannon delivers an unnerving performance as head of security Richard Strickland. It is the subtlety of his cruelty that is more frightening than any creature even Del Torro could dream up. However like many of his previous films there is genuine horror and gore. Yet, the film also reflects upon the social monstrosities of the time, touching on segregation, sexual assault and homophobia in a way that resonates deeply in merely a few scenes. What resonates louder is the way Elisa and the amphibian man bond to one another, through their shared experiences of isolation.
Sally Hawkins gives such an amazingly emotive performance, even despite being stripped of her voice. Elisa is a force to be reckoned with. Like the amphibian man, she finds ways to communicate with her eyes, and her body. She doesn’t need to scream or to cry for us to know how strong she is, and her smile speaks volumes about the nature of her character.
This is a thriller, a romance, and a story like no other. With superb acting from the whole cast, The Shape of Water is a dark and beautiful film that elevates the whole concept of the monster movie.
The Shape of Water is in Cinemas across Australia now.