Film review | The Shape of Water

While certainly among the more ‘polite’ entries in Guillermo del Toro’s otherwise sanguine and subversive takes on the politically-engaged fairy tale sub-genre, The Shape of Water remains an engaging and heartfelt time at the cinema • 4/5

For love of the fish-man: Michael Stuhlbarg, Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones form an unlikely alliance in Guillermo Del Toro’s Oscar-winning tenth feature film
For love of the fish-man: Michael Stuhlbarg, Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones form an unlikely alliance in Guillermo Del Toro’s Oscar-winning tenth feature film

Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, renowned for his cine-literate (and just plain literate) takes on established genres and storytelling tropes, won big at this year’s Oscars – his latest, the Cold War-set fantasy-drama The Shape of Water, took home both the Best Picture and Best Director gongs.

And while the film certainly doesn’t mine the same depths and subversive chills as some of his previous work – Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), a tragic coming-of-age story set in fascist Spain, remains the eternal flame of his CV, and a potent reminder that ‘fantasy’ does not always equal ‘escapism’ – it is an Oscar winner which, for once, has an edge of uniqueness, and that doesn’t strive for appeasement in each frame.

In fact, despite its outwardly charming period details, it’s something of a knotted tale among whose most memorable takeaways is that of a mute cleaning lady, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) falling in love with and, eventually and most definitely, sleeping with a humanoid fish-man (Doug Jones).

Being set in 1962 and showcasing an America which, while living under the cloud of the Cold War, is still enjoying the consumerist trappings of the post-WWII era, del Toro lulls us with a false sense of security whose chilling underbelly is, however, not too far behind. Think of the suburbias of Tim Burton’s earlier classics, with a dash of Amelie thrown in as we witness Elisa’s morning routine – as the lilting, jaunty music by Alexander Desplat plays on in the background, we see her boiling some eggs for packed lunch, running a bath and masturbating before heading out to work at the government facility, where her loquacious friend Zelda (Octavia Butler) faithfully – but not without some protestations of her own – holds up the line to wait for the perennially tardy Elisa to punch in.

Distilled modern evil: Michael Shannon
Distilled modern evil: Michael Shannon

The frankness and joy of Elisa’s morning rituals – all of them – is a feather the cap of Del Toro and his co-screenwriter Vanessa Taylor, and the tone it sets prepares us for the “fish-man sex” that is to follow after Elisa befriends and falls in love with the unnamed ‘Amphibian Man’ (Jones), who has been cruelly carted over from South America – where he was worshipped like a god by the natives – by the ambitious Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon).

Strickland is yet another of Del Toro’s classic villains – a diabolically crystalline representation of a distinctly American sense of the ‘Three Es’: Entitlement, Expansion and Exploitation. Keen to vivisect the Amphibian Man so as to gain a research edge on the Russians in the space race, Strickland fails to realise that it’s the cleaning staff that are causing the real trouble, instead focusing his cross-hairs on the scientist Dimitri Mosenkov (Michael Stuhlbarg) – a Soviet spy going by the name Robert Hoffstetler, who also develops feelings for the Amphibian Man, and decides to go against the orders of his own superiors.

Made complete by the participation of Elisa’s closeted roommate Giles (Paul Jenkins) – an aging  graphic artist with his best years behind him – and what you’ve got is a timely celebration of the outsider; hardly a new theme for Del Toro but made all the more urgent by the current global milieu.

As with all Del Toro films, the characters are outlined as archetypes – crucially, not stereotypes – in the best possible way: they deliberately stand for abstract ideas, in a way that recalls fairy tales but that resists their Disneyfication. The rotten politics and economic engines of Strickland’s ambitions are rendered as more monstrous than the Amphibian Man could ever be, and at every step of the way, he fails to realise that no matter how much he struts and asserts his power over others, or how fancy his newly-purchased Cadillac may be, what he’s dealing with is not some backwater freak, but a bona fide river god.

The verdict

While certainly among the more ‘polite’ entries in Guillermo del Toro’s otherwise sanguine and subversive takes on the politically-engaged fairy tale sub-genre, The Shape of Water remains an engaging and heartfelt time at the cinema. Its Oscar wins perhaps only confirm that it’s more of a crowd-pleaser than the rest of this Mexican auteur’s confrontational cinematic oeuvre, but it remains an earnest and full-blooded celebration of otherness and outsiders of all stripes, during a time in which such pleas for tolerance are most desperately needed. An impeccably crafted and emotionally stirring experience.

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