Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Doug Jones, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Jenkins
The Shape of Water is a love story set in the 1960s. The lovers are a mute cleaning lady and an amphibian man who has a muscled torso but also scales and gills. On paper, it sounds preposterous. On screen, it is poetry. Guillermo del Toro’s film is fantastical, gorgeous, nutty and so moving that I wept.
Del Toro has a frenzied, fiercely original imagination. His worlds are populated by magical creatures with a propensity for both great good and jaw-dropping evil. But even the most awful are fully realized and utterly fascinating. Here that character is Colonel Richard Strickland, a power-hungry, sadistic government official, played by Michael Shannon. Strickland, armed with an electric cattle-prod, enjoys torturing the creature who reciprocates by biting his fingers. After that, the creature who was found somewhere in the jungles of Amazon, is chained.
Not everyone is afraid of him. Elisa, who cleans up the blood that Colonel Strickland sheds, sees the creature’s beauty. Both are voiceless but they communicate through sign language and eggs – he likes them. Citing science and national security, the powers that be resolve that the creature must die. But Elisa gets in the way. She says or rather she signs – All that I am, all that I have ever been, brought me here to him.
How far does this love story go? All the way. The love-making between Elisa and her merman is a thing of staggering beauty. The Shape of Water is a celebration of marginalized, voiceless people and of fluidity. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen captures this with beautifully lit shots of a bathtub, rain, a lagoon and even the creature’s watery prison. The visuals and colours enhance the fairy tale nature of the story but the rich emotions ground it. The acting is superb – especially the Oscar-nominated Sally Hawkins who is the beating heart of the film. Her love for her merman is sweet, tender and unforgettable.
I also enjoyed the wonderful Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer and Michael Stuhlbarg who plays a Russian spy. And of course Shannon whose Colonel Strickland is a villain so contorted and tortured himself that you almost want to help with a hug and therapy. The Shape of Water is obviously inspired by Creature from the Black Lagoon, also a story set during the Cold War, of a half-man, half-fish creature. But del Toro gives the camp classic an entirely new spin, imbuing the idea with layers of wisdom.
In an interview with Collider, del Toro, who is Mexican, spoke about how Catholicism and the old religion of Mexico fused when the country was conquered. He said: In my case, that happened with Catholicism and monsters. They fused. I truly was redeemed by these figures. Where other people saw horror, I saw beauty. And where people saw normalcy, I saw horror. I realized that the true monsters are in the human heart.
The Shape of Water is visionary filmmaking.