Synopsis – At a top secret research facility in the 1960s, a lonely janitor forms a unique relationship with an amphibious creature that is being held in captivity.
My Take – I think we all can agree that Guillermo Del Toro is a solid filmmaker! Often experimenting with variety of genres, from the 2006 fantasy epic, Pan’s Labyrinth, to solid action flicks like Blade II (2002), Hellboy (2004), Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) and Pacific Rim (2013), to horror ventures like The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Cronos (1993) to a simple Gothic love story like Crimson Peak (2015), the filmmaker-extraordinaire has made a name for himself for telling his stories with the right amount of wit, style and heart. Therefore, as a fan of his filmography, it came to me as no surprise when this strange and moving film opened to immense acclaim worldwide and found itself competing with as one of the best films of 2017. There is no doubt that being a master of dark fantasy, director Guillermo Del Toro knows how to bring alive the illusive wonderlands and nightmares we can relish and transform them into wonderful poignant crafts of insight and meaning, and this film is no exception. As a groundbreaking technical and thematic masterpiece, here, director Guillermo del Toro accomplishes something that on paper seems impossible; a fairy tale/ monster film about an unconventional romance during the Cold War, with a social commentary on misfits in the background. Even though you’ve seen this particular story of romance many times over, I personally feel that this gorgeous looking film has enough of a fresh spin to win old and new fans over. Set during the Cold War conflict of the 60s, the story follows Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaning lady working at a secret government facility in Baltimore. Living alone, her two friends consist of neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted gay man who teaches her about old music and film, and her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), an African American homemaker who is also her sign language interpreter for their employers.
Her life changes when Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the head of the facility, brings in an amphibious creature he captured in South America as the main asset of the facility. While all the ominous and clandestine government operations are being conducted on the creature, as a member of the night time cleaning crew, Elisa curiously inspects the water contraption that contains the creature, and is surprised to find that the creature is a male that can swim and live in both salt water and stand upright on dry land. While forming a friendship as Elisa brings in food for him, and introduces him to music, the two grow closer without ever speaking (considering that Eliza is mute and the merman can’t speak). However, things begin to look bleak as Strickland, obsessed with the cold war, wants’ the creature dissected and studied for the space race, despite the disapproval of the head scientist, Doctor Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) who just wants to study and examine the beast, and at the same time, Soviet spies want the creature destroyed so the U.S. can’t get ahead. Hence a race is on to see if Eliza can outwit both sides of the war for her love. The story is quite simple, and if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the entire story outside of the final five minutes. Every plot point is easy enough to predict, and every scene plays out as expected. That being said, the scenes also play out with so much beauty, and every set piece and shot is so meticulously crafted that you would be alright with going along for such kind of a ride. This is a film where del Toro weaves magic throughout with a story he created which is simple, yet layered with such interesting facets embedded in each character, set, and prop as he allows the audience to discover this intimate and fascinating world of “broken” people searching for a moment of meaning. What is amazing profound about del Toro‘s latest work is its eccentric visualization in reflection of the political and social conceptions of the past, that whether we accept it or not does exist even today, and the most centralized end is the treatment of those who are different. The film directly deals with the fantasy of other species but intertwined with racial treatment relevant to the time in which the film is set, and then of course against the back drops of the national conflicts, but then also the value of those with deficiencies, as portrayed by Elisa. Even outside of the facility, director del Toro never shies away from the darkness behind this maintained superficial beauty. Racism, sexism and homophobia are ever present as shop owners reject minorities to preserve their all-white family aesthetic and Col. Strickland exerts his dominance over the wife of his nuclear family in a truly sickening way. However, unlike most period pieces, there is no protest or fight for change. The superficial world remains solid through every horrible injustice committed, for these characters live in the 60s, where there is an understanding (or at least a belief) that things won’t change. Another thing which makes this film stand out is its romance angle, especially the mute approach between Elisa and the Amphibian Man. What makes the chemistry truly unique is that it’s nonverbal and avoids a fundamental problem most romance films have where sometimes both characters go into a bunch of meaningless melodramatic prattle that really dampens the story. Personally in romance stories I find the quiet physical expression the best parts because both characters are expressing what they truly feel for one another. Despite communicated in silence you can hear them loud and clear from not just their sign language but also just physicality which made the connection all the more genuine and beautiful. The film is achingly nostalgic with glorious production design by Paul D. Austerberry evoking the Baltimore of 1962 full of fascinating textures of faded glory, especially in the magnificent design of Eliza’s apartment and hallways.
Del Toro films have a signature production design that brings to life its very own magnificent world, although this is not full del Toro fairy tale land, it does have a very extraordinary construct of the real world, from Eliza’s apartment to the secret facility, echoing the true Gothic universe of the real world. Opening in a momentous title sequence, director del Toro literally floods the screen in ravishing visual effects and segments. Only more so combined with the inescapable talents of cinematographer: Dan Laustsen, who swiftly moves from one room to the next with a mythical immersive experience alluring us furthermore into the depths of the story and art work of the film. The creature design was also the best we’ve seen yet from filmmaker del Toro. He has always favored physical costume design over post-production. The amphibian man is no different. He looks all the more real for his physical design. This feels homelier amidst the huge shift towards digital effects in modern cinema. There are still some digital effects, but they aren’t noticeable. The amphibian man is of course played by long-time collaborator, Doug Jones, who plays nearly all of del Toro’s monsters. Oscar winning composer Alexandre Desplat delivers yet another spot on score that not only syncs with story, but also the numerous classic songs included. The music is not only outstanding on its own, but actively enhances just about every scene. It never comes on too strong, it doesn’t steal the show, it just gracefully supplements the on-screen action flawlessly, all in-line with the setting, the themes, the tone, sentimental when it needs to be, and grandiose, orchestral, and sweeping during the more bombast moments. Before directing my appraisals towards the film’s exceptional ensemble performances, I do need to mention the flaws of the film, especially its slow pacing. I get it we need time to develop the characters, but watching going through her day-to-day routines just ends up being repetitive and quite frankly boring. Also, there is one weird musical scene added in the final act of the film. When Elisa and the Amphibian are on the dining room, in order to express her feelings to him, she suddenly bursts into an imaginary musical sequence, which was plain weird, and took the tone and direction away from the film. Coming to the performances of a cast which are expected quite exception considering the talent involved. In the lead role, Sally Hawkins, as the mute Elisa is exceptional here. With expressive eyes and strong empathy, Sally Hawkins is amazing and mesmerizing in her portrayal. I could not imagine anyone else doing better in this role. There wasn’t a single scene, a single moment, where she wasn’t perfect for what the film needs. Opposite her is the confident physical actor Doug Jones, manning the rubber suit of the creature in a brilliant bodily performance, outdoing his previous collaborative performances with del Toro. The other cast members are equally well-suited for their roles. Octavia Spencer is excellent as the foul-mouthed, funny, and caring friend and coworker, Michael Shannon‘s villain, while a bit over the top, certainly gets the job done and drives many scenes of the film and Richard Jenkins is a delight, as he often is. Michael Stuhlbarg also gets his moments to shine and does sensationally well as expected. On the whole, ‘The Shape of Water’ is a wonderfully weird, thrilling, touching and surreal film from an extraordinary director that is not just visually dazzling but also one of the finest films of 2017.
Directed – Guillermo del Toro
Rated – R
Run Time – 123 minutes