Elisa (Sally Hawkins) has strange scars on her neck that prevent her from speaking. When the scientists at the laboratory where she works bring in a monstrous, aquatic creature (Doug Jones) for study, she quickly establishes a bond with it. Soon, Elisa enlists the help of neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) to bust the monster out.
Speaking about his last film, Crimson Peak, director Guillermo del Toro was at pains to describe it as a gothic romance as opposed to a straight horror, but it’s The Shape of Water – an utterly triumphant return to form – where del Toro truly discovers the romance of the horror genre. As a Cold-War period piece, the world of The Shape of Water is perfectly conceived, filtered through the nostalgia of a thousand 1950s sci-fi B movies and a lifetime of Americana.
The film that del Toro owes the greatest debt to is, of course, the Universal horror classic The Creature of the Black Lagoon, plunging us into the dark romance that was always hinted at in those old classics. But this is no mere surface-level homage. It’s a truly vital picture, from moving performances across the board, the gorgeously stylised set design and the sumptuous cinematography, The Shape of Water is teeming with cinematic life.
And while its beautifully romantic story – like a top-flight Pixar film come to life – is undoubtedly the main draw, it’s fundamentally underpinned by a political sensibility that falls very much on the side of the marginalised and the other. From Elisa’s muteness, Zelda’s race and Giles’ sexuality, all of the film’s heroes have all experienced being treated as a monster themselves. In a lesser film, comparing these themes to the plight of an amorous fish-man would be trite, even tasteless, yet in the hands of del Toro it feels completely right – a companion piece to the background of Spanish fascism in Pan’s Labyrinth.
Political allegories aside, The Shape of Water sinks or swims on the success of the relationship between Elisa and her scaly suitor. On paper, it’s beyond icky, but Hawkins’ complex, nuanced portrayal utterly sells the premise. Jones – essentially reprising his role from the Hellboy films – invests his creature with a pathos not seen since Boris Karloff’s seminal portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster. The film’s centrepiece, an underwater waltz, is so beautifully executed that the weight of disbelief is easily suspended. Easily del Toro’s best English-language work, The Shape of Water is not simply a triumph, but a reminder of what it is to fall in love with cinema.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell