If you weren’t already aware that he holds icons of monster movie history so close to his heart, Guillermo Del Toro makes it clear by channelling every beat of it into The Shape of Water. Now a well established master of monsters himself, there’s always been a softness and emotive element flitting between the shadows he’s constructed over the years. His Oscar-winning smash Pan’s Labyrinth was thought to be a grown up fantasy film; a girl transcending into womanhood and encountering horrors not just in another realm, but our own as well. The Shape of Water is another impressive display of mixing a magical world of his design with our own, this time during the Cold War and making the statement that in such times, love still conquers all.
Sally Hawkins plays the timid and wonderfully sweet soul, Elisa, a mute caretaker who works within the secretive walls of a government building that has just hauled in a catch of fantastic proportions. In their battle against Russia during the space race, these shifty government bods believe their latest asset – an Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) – could be the key to turning the tide, even if their new guest is reluctant to aid. Trapped in this prison, he slowly forms a bond with Elisa who takes it upon herself to release her new beau from the black lagoon before it’s too late.
Making a familiar Splash to some stories we’ve seen in the past, it only takes a few minutes to be assured that this is undeniably a Del Toro picture, simply for the nightmarish but equally beautiful view of it all. You may have heard one like this before, but you’ve in no way seen it told with such stunning sets that have tumbled out of the director’s mind. Adding that extra bit of life of course is the incredible cast that dip their toe into this grand fairy tale.
Certainly the best cast Del Toro has worked with to date, there’s a wonderful collection of talent fighting for and against Elisa and her new guy with gills. Richard Jenkins delivers that trademark earnestness and compassion as our heroines neighbour, trying to find his own other half during a time when it’s unacceptable. There’s also Octavia Spencer whose charm delivers another flawless performance as Elisa’s long term work friend Zelda, and the massively overlooked Michael Shannon as the film’s villain, detesting the new captured ‘Asset’ whilst being a monster all on his own. Shannon relishes playing the bad guy and his portrayal of Colonel Strickland is no exception. Slimier than his prisoner and much more menacing, he’s the constant threat lingering through the film and keeps the tension high all through his own doing.
As flawless as this film might be, be it in its visuals and the characters that inhabit it, the one element that feels just a little too fishy is with Hawkins and her love interest. Both she and the always excellent Doug Jones as the man behind the monster give it their all, fleshing out their characters in their own unique way. Hawkins as the heroine, unable to vocalise her torment and heart ache of feeling so alone is expertly manifested through every reserved tear and heartbreaking glance she gives, and Jones breathes life as he always does into the creature that catches Elisa’s attention. The problem however, is when the love between them builds, or doesn’t as the case so clearly comes to be.
Whilst this fantastic premise feels real, the love between our two romantics doesn’t quite hold water. No matter how much stunning imagery Del Toro establishes when Elisa comes to her man’s rescue the result doesn’t reach the depths it should. The language barrier between the two is easily overcome, but it feels like there’s not enough from Jones’ deep-sea stranger to call for any form of affection for him and the woman he’s fallen for.
Thankfully, this issue feels like a minor one in a film that is overflowing with other stunning moments that are full of emotion Del Toro hasn’t tapped into since Pan’s Labyrinth. It might not quite surpass his other story from once upon a time in the Spanish Civil war, but there’s definitely something special in the water for his latest effort.