Telling a rather unconventional love story, Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water is like a strange fan fiction that’s been given legitimacy, creating an odd but beautiful feature that follows Elisa, a mute janitor, as her romantic fantasies are fulfilled when she discovers and falls for an aquatic monster.
Set in the 1960s, this story of love and persecution is a clear commentary of racial and sexual tensions of the time; each protagonist is in their own way different, making it easy for them to empathise when the amphibian man is discovered. Be it gay, black or blue with gills; Del Toro presents a world where all those who don’t fit the mould of the perfect American suffer as a result. It is then even more ironic that the increasingly manic Michael Shannon belongs to that seemingly perfect nuclear family idealised across the USA on television at the time; the American dream is subverted as his true monstrousness begins bubbling to the surface. Del Toro brings his unique aesthetic and tone to the picture, adding a dose of steampunk to a realistically dark world. Much like Pan’s Labyrinth, this is a modern fairy-tale injected with violence and cruelty. The balancing act of wonder and misery is handled carefully to give a strong atmosphere that alternates rapidly between relaxed and extremely tense.
The film perfectly captures a retro 60s aesthetic but exaggerates the beauty and colour of the world to give an almost theatrical feel to the film; this style flourishes as the creature escapes from the sterile tones of the research facility to the niche décor and refracting light within Elisa’s apartment. The creature itself, referred to simply as ‘The Asset’, is a thing of pure beauty and a wonder of modern practical effects, allowing you to always feel the weight and presence of the talented Doug Jones through the layers of prosthetics. It may be the source of the film’s conflict but the story still belongs to Sally Hawkins’ Elisa, her frustration with society and work manifesting itself in the quest to befriend and free the lonely creature. Despite playing a mute, Hawkins conveys a lot of emotion and manages to develop a realistic romance without saying a word.
The Shape of Water is a mesmerising fairy-tale about not fitting in; a love story and period piece, it is a B-movie given the big budget treatment. With a timeless quality, it exhibits the best features of Guillermo Del Toro’s work and is by far his most powerful film in years.