Guillermo del Toro (‘Pan's Labyrinth’, 'Crimson Peak') is a remarkable filmmaker. While engrossed in every film he touches, you can’t help but sigh wistfully to yourself and quietly exclaim, “No one else makes movies like this.” But del Toro is not grossly original or unique - you can pick inspirations and adaptations from all over the shop, yet he seems to have this wonderfully haunting eye and way of writing that hits you in such a delightfully disturbing way that your entire view starts to shift and before you know it you find yourself in his world and you are (pun intended)... hooked.
‘The Shape of Water’ is being described as a modern fairytale. There are no princesses, no damsels, no curses and the Grimm brothers have not put their sticky hands anywhere near this. Oh no, in this tale, the “beauty” likes to masturbate in the bath as part of her daily routine and the “beast” is still beastly - or specifically in this case, scaly, at the time the credits roll. Parents take heed of the MA15+ rating - Disney did not make this one.
Set in the visually lush 60s, mute Elisa (Sally Hawkins, ‘Maudie’) spends her days dreaming or in the company of her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins, ‘Kong: Skull Island'), and her nights as a janitor inside a research facility alongside chatty Zelda (Octavia Spencer, ‘Hidden Figures’). When an amphibious creature (Doug Jones, ‘Hellboy’) is brought into the facility along with the sinister Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, ‘Nocturnal Animals’), Elisa forms a special relationship with the aquatic captive and formulates a plan to break him out.
I do so love it when I get to use the word “defies” in a review - and this is one such time. ‘The Shape of Water' defies reason or rationality. Never before have I found myself rooting for a successful bestiality relationship, but such is the power of this story - one filled with wonder, acceptance, love, romance, discovery of self and beauty is all its form.
This is one fairytale that Disney definitely did not make.
The film also features a drool-worthy production design, a score by Alexandre Desplat (‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’) to melt your heart, and some of the most glorious and underestimated romantic visuals. A grand neon ‘Orpheum’ sign as Elisa descends the fire escape of the theatre she lives above. Giles and Elisa imitating a dance routine they’ve just watched on TV from the comfort of the couch. Hand-drawn print ads. Pie on a rotating display case at the end of a diner counter. And shoes! Guillermo del Toro doesn’t just tell stories, he creates worlds, worlds to get lost in for stories you wish with all your heart to come true.
‘The Shape of Water’ is not only brought to life by del Toro and his infallible team including cinematographer Dan Laustsen ('Crimson Peak'), but his delicious cast is filled with some of the most talented but celebrity-shy actors around. Sally Hawkins is fearless in her portrayal. Michael Shannon once again shines as the creepy bad guy. Richard Jenkins has long been one of Hollywood’s most underrated and under-appreciated gems. Octavia Spencer could make going through airport security a delight. And Michael Stuhlbarg - well, he just has the Midas touch these days, doesn’t he?
This may not be the kind of fairytale you should read to kids in bed at night, but it’ll still leave you with those long-lost childhood feelings of astonishment and reverence.