Guillermo Del Toro’s style is easily and immediately recognizable but is also uniquely his and hard to definitively describe. His stories are urban period faerie tales, but the period is never too far in the past. His visuals are somehow disturbing and whimsical at the same time, which makes sense since his favorite subject matter is to follow an innocent character undergoing terrifying situations. How great of a filmmaker he is is still very much up to debate, but even his harshest critics will admit that what he does behind a camera is impossible to imitate. Del Toro’s imagination is distinctly and uniquely his.
In his latest film The Shape of Water, we are given the story of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman whose job is to clean at a secret United States government facility. It takes place during the height of the Cold War, so security at the facility is tight and paranoia is rampant. The story begins when Elisa and her closest work friend Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) witness a large container being brought into the facility by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Inside the container is a dangerous aquatic creature the likes of which no one outside the South American tribe which worshipped it as a god has ever seen before. Elisa and Zelda are charged with cleaning the room the creature is housed in, and over time Elisa finds herself drawn to it and feels the need to spend as much time in the creature’s company as she can.
In interviews, Del Toro has said that one of the major themes in The Shape of Water is that the only characters in the film who have no trouble communicating with each other are the two who are incapable of speech. If I hadn’t heard him say it I’m not sure I would have gotten that exact interpretation of the film, but I did see something very similar and that is that the two who are looked down on by others as lesser find in each other the drive and strength to overcome those very people who think so little of them. It’s a common theme in a romantic faerie tale but in Del Toro’s hands it ascends beyond its common roots, really allowing us to experience the unusual nature of the central relationship while still being able to truly empathize with their plight unlike the majority of films which give us a very standard situation and merely use a character quirk here and there or an exaggerated adventure in order to make people and events seem unusual.
None of this could have worked at all if not for Del Toro’s talent with visual arts and the incredible performances of The Shape of Water‘s cast. Art director Nigel Churcher and his crew give us a world at once familiar and fantastic. It uses sewers, industry, and urban sprawl in a way a typical faerie tale would use dungeons, castles, and forests. They are places of both beauty and danger but here the dragon is a sociopathic boss, the princess an isolated mute, the prince a South American fishman, and the father a homosexual artist who needs to hide his nature from the world. The special effects in The Shape of Water are used to fantastic effect. The fishman really comes to life through the incredible motion capture of Doug Jones and the aquatic scenes are things of tranquil, slightly surreal beauty. Finally, the cinematography by Dan Laustsen is among the best we’ve seen this year and Sidney Wolinski’s film editing literally had me dropping my jaw in amazement on quite a few occasions. Most impressive of all is that never once does Del Toro use his visuals to impress or to brag, but only to tell the story in the best way possible. He doesn’t seek to wow us with his technical skill. He seeks to let his story wow us with its depth of emotion and realizes that the visuals are one of the best ways of conveying that, but it is the story not the special effects and camera work that should be the focus.
You can’t have depth of emotion without people, and the actors’ performances in the film rival the visuals in quality meaning they are also some of the very best of the year. Octavia Spencer and Michael Shannon are the veterans of the award circuits here, and they give as excellent a performance as we have come to expect from them which still means that they give the weakest performances in the ensemble. Yes, everyone else is that amazing. Richard Jenkins is absolutely phenomenal as the gay artist who lives down the hall from Elisa and acts as a sort of combination best friend and father figure. The way is homosexual is only an element of his personality, but the element that makes him a pariah, and not the focal point of his character is written and performed with exactly the nuance more roles like this should be. Not once does the film call attention to his sexuality, if it weren’t for one scene it would be more wondered at than confirmed, but while the film never makes the mistake of suggesting that his sexuality is anywhere near the entirety of his character it does recognize that if it weren’t for his sexuality his life would be very different.
Michael Stuhlbarg is excellent as Dr. Robert Hoffstetler. To say too much about his character and what makes his performance so spectacular would be to delve too deeply into spoiler territory. He is one of the few characters who shows an honest affection for the creature and adds a fascinating dimension to the Cold War element of the story. He’s one of those actors who has been around a while, and you will recognize his face, but never remains memorable. I don’t know if The Shape of Water will change that for most audiences as his role is a non-flashy supporting one, but he certainly made me sit up and take notice.
Then there are Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones as the cross-species lovers. Both are entirely mute and able to communicate only with action and some sign language and both give a performance that despite, or perhaps because of, this handicap show just how fake and manufactured most Hollywood romances are. Without speech, we have to understand what draws these two together, what makes them perfect for each other, and what it is that makes them love each other so much they would sacrifice their lives for and entrust their lives to each other. They not only pull it off, they make it so seamless and look so effortless that by the film’s end it doesn’t even seem unusual.
Final verdict: The Shape of Water does for “Beauty and the Beast” what many were hoping the live-action Disney version would do earlier this year, though this version of the story is far too adult and candid for most children. The Shape of Water may not be quite the masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth was, but it is definitely one of the best films in Guillermo Del Toro’s repertoire. From script to visuals to acting there is not a single element in the film which isn’t masterfully done and the performances, in particular, are some for the ages. The Shape of Water isn’t one for those who don’t like Del Toro’s style as this movie is his through and through, but for everyone else this is a brilliant, moving, and unique love story which will be remembered as a great film for a very long time.