By returning to the form and style of his memorable early Spanish-language films (The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth), Guillermo del Toro delivers in The Shape of Water a perfectly unique and beautifully realised fairy tale. As dark and adult-focussed as such a story could be, this distinctive monster movie successfully weaves together a story of puritanical mid-century America with a lovingly, beautifully rendered fable of love and friendship among society’s outsiders.
Buoyed by an amazing, brave and strong central performance from Sally Hawkins, the film is a visually – and emotionally – insightful fantasy which manages to weave in telling thematic elements (intolerance and prejudice towards disabled, black or gay Americans) with this warmly imaginative creature feature.
Its replete with amazing set design, cinematography and a beautiful score, but the film’s strongest suit is its facet which could have thrown it completely off balance. There is an at-times physical romance between a human woman and this creature from the black lagoon. It could have, at any point, devolved from a proper reimagining of Beauty and the Beast into a clumsy, gender-swapped Splash redux, but through Del Toro and so-writer Vanessa Taylor’s deft handling of the material (and, again, you can’t say enough good things about Sally Hawkins) you gain a solid understanding of the dynamic between the two – expertly conveyed through near-silence (she’s mute; he’s a fish-man).
Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Shannon (who is eminently watchable in close to everything he does) and Octavia Spencer (the chatty yang to Hawkins’ silent yin) fill out the cast beautifully, and it’s good to see supporting parts with meat on the bones given to character actors of this calibre. Also, the creature itself is a man in a suit, a practical effect who is only rendered as a CG effect when wide shots in swimming scenes call for it. Nothing like a bit of old-school costume and makeup work.
Like Del Toro’s other fairy tale (Pan’s Labyrinth), this one is not for kids – with bursts of significant violence on display, perfectly in sync with the story, yet belying the very nature of the genre as one for children. But we were all children once, so enjoy it while you can.