Fresh from his last outing with Crimson Peak, visionary director and devoted cinephile Guillermo del Toro returns to our screens with The Shape of Water, a magical tale of forbidden love between human and creature that transcends mere romanticism; a story that blurs the boundaries between mortality and social acceptance.
Set in the early 1960s where tensions about racial acceptance and injustice were at an all-time high, The Shape of Water tells the story of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute and innocent woman who finds peace scrubbing the filthy floors of a top-secret research facility with friend and colleague Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer), and her frequent encounters with her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins). Elisa’s life remains reliant on mundanity and routine, but all that changes when an amphibian-like creature (Doug Jones) is wheeled into the facility. The nature of this captivity is highly classified, a secret that is helmed by the monstrous Richard Strickland, played with a true sense of tyranny by Michael Shannon.
Guillermo del Toro’s story is a mesmerising creation, one tantamount to the creature that lurks under the water of the research facility. Del Toro’s collaboration with cinematographer Dan Laustsen and costume designer Luis Sequeira creates a cinematic environment that is soaked with realism, from Laustsen’s green, aquatic undertones to Sequeria’s breathtaking design of Doug Jones’ creature. Attention must also be paid to Alexandre Desplat’s wonderful musical input, who provides an enchanting, yet melancholic score that delicately holds our hands and sends us on a journey in del Toro’s majestic universe. Guillermo proves yet again that he is the master of seamlessly integrating monsters in the real world in the most spectacular way possible.
Sally Hawkins is terrific as Elisa, who, without saying a single word, channels a sense of innocence and melancholy through her physical performance. Her emotions are shown exclusively through her agonising facial expressions and timid physicality, who finds hope and romance with the unlikeliest of companions. Elisa’s quest in rescuing her suitor from captivity is met with sturdy opposition in the form of Michael Shannon’s Richard Strickland, the hard-headed predator that matches the animosity of the creature. Shannon is truly terrifying in his role, bringing to the fore a juggernaut performance that exhibits Strickland’s relentlessness in acquiring his prisoner. His barbarism towards the defenseless creature is something that rings far too clearly in today’s trophy-hunting society; a culture that prides itself on asserting one’s dominance over vulnerable beings.
The Shape of Water not only highlights issues with animal cruelty but also issues surrounding the marginalisation of minorities, which in this instance, comes in the form of a muted woman and her amphibian lover. This is no mere romantic story but an aquatic metaphor that marinates in the depths of today’s social issues, despite being set against the backdrop of 1960s America. I guess times really haven’t changed, huh?
Guillermo del Toro’s film is, at the end of it all, a cinematic triumph. His complete adoration for cinema has once more inspired a tale that will be loved by filmgoers for many years to come. I, for one, am completely besotted by it. Inter-species lovemaking has never looked so goddamn beautiful.