Like all the most accomplished fairy tales, Guillermo del Toro’s latest world of wonders, The Shape of Water, opens with a sense of promise, of magical things to come, and inevitably, with an undertone of darkness.
Through a door, ajar, the camera slips into a dark, blueish, watery home. The sound of creaking wood, a low rumble, a swoosh, as if one were at sea in an ancient sailboat. A sunken sailboat: everything is underwater, floating dreamily in a tranquil space cluttered with old fashioned furniture – a Victorian side-table, an old lamp glowing in the gloom, a chaise-longue, and on the chaise-longue, a blissfully sleeping woman. ‘If I told you about her, the Princess without voice’ the unseen narrator begins to tells us, with a warm kind voice…
But it is perhaps only a dream. An alarm rings, and the Princess from the dream, Eliza (Sally Hawkins), wakes briskly in a flat which is high and dry, and no longer blue-green. She lives in an old building, in a flat above a faded and grand old cinema. Her neighbour, an older, lonesome man, Giles (Richard Jenkins) is the unseen narrator heard at the beginning of the film. He is her friend, and he lends her his voice. Eliza is mute, but not deaf, as a result of a mysterious incident when she was a baby, when she was found, abandoned, by a river, bearing three long scars on the side of her throat.
Eliza’s routine, between waking and setting off for her shifts as a janitor in a top-secret research facility, is an energetic delight. The water in the pan, where she boils eggs for the packed meal she takes to work, bubbles away as energetically as the water in the bathtub, where she pleasures herself upon waking up.
As with all proper fairy tales, something wonderful happens, and then something awful too.
Eliza’s place of work, the Occam Aerospace Research Centre, holds a dark secret – a prisoner, who is being treated cruelly. Half-glimpsed, held captive in water, in a reinforced glass and metal tube, it appears to be some strange sea creature. Perhaps an octopus. It rages furiously at its captivity. The water bubbles away, like the water in Eliza’s egg pan, and like the water in her bathtub.
One day, Eliza and the creature (Doug Jones) encounter each other, and it is almost love, almost at first sight; or rather, a love that begins as delicate, graceful, desire. Eliza’s eyes light up when she sees him stand up in his fish-tank. The creature, part man part fish, is beautiful, paradoxically an iconic model of masculinity – a body reminiscent of Michelangelo’s David, were he an athletic ballet dancer, but with a skin made of scales, and with a crest of fins on his spine.
If mermen, or the famous Creature from the Black Lagoon, have been portrayed in the past as rather ugly, this creature, captured from the Amazon, is a magnificent figure of desire. It is mentioned that the creature was captured in the Amazon river, a place where he is considered to be a river god, and to have supernatural powers. His captor, Strickland (Michael Shannon) tries to break him. The river god’s fate, in Strickland’s hands, will be terrible.
Given the story is set in the early Sixties, in Baltimore, in an aerospace research centre, the context of the Cold War and the space race loom large, and of course Soviet spies are never far. The struggle for civil rights is a constant theme running throughout the story.
The casting is markedly symbolic. Opposite Strickland, in quiet resistance, stand those who all too well could be his victims. Alongside the River God, Giles is gay, Eliza is considered a disabled woman, Zelda is a black woman, and Dr Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a courageous scientist who tries to prevent the River God’s dissection, is a dissident of some sort, as the story reveals in due course. All persons well worth crushing, from Strickland’s perspective.
Every single performance from these accomplished actors is fully formed and entrancing. Sally Hawkins as Eliza Esposito is the perfect fairy tale character – open-hearted and authentic, and lovely without being a cardboard cut-out princess. Hawkins is a remarkable actor, and captures the role perfectly.
Del Toro’s intricate world-building is supported by a myriad of carefully crafted characters. Attention to detail is lavished on almost every role, however minor – from the feckless husband of Eliza’s best friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), to the owner of the cinema below Eliza’s flat. Even Strickland’s fingers have a story arc and a life – and indeed a gruesome destiny – of their own.
The story offers a whole array of delightful sub-plots and set-pieces, full of loving period detail, from the tailfins of Strickland’s new car to the colour of the jello Giles painstakingly repaints in the advertising posters he creates for a company that employs him at quite some arm’s length.
The screenplay and dialogues, by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, are superb. Tiny jokes are dotted here and there, all consistent with the themes of the story. A calendar in Eliza’s apartment, which provides a daily homily, laconically states something rather alarming, on a fateful day, in tune with the overarching aquatic theme: ‘Life is just the shipwreck of our plans’.
The set design is lavish, cluttered ad layered, and with almost infinite grades of colour, nuances of blue-green shades in one world, and honey to mustard tones in another. Colour even ends up being discussed explicitly in the film in more than one scene. One character, Strickland, mentions teal. While teal is abundantly present in the story, at that very moment the colour referred to might well be duck-egg blue. Dan Laustsen’s cinematography is painterly, lavishly capturing fine details of light, colour, and movement.
None of these intricate details detract from the powerful narrative drive, the fun, excitement and jeopardy of the twists and turns in the story. The wonderful kitsch which pervades The Shape of Water remains secondary to the genuine, heart-stopping emotions which well up from the story.
There must be a special reason why Eliza is drawn to her River lover. And curiously, despite his powers, he does not use them to heal the three neat scars on the side of her neck.
There is more to all this than Eliza’s attraction to her river monster – there is also a sense of recognition. Eliza’s vision of her lover is not only as someone to desire, and not only as a kindred spirit: in one of the film’s most meaningful, moving scenes, she makes a compelling case for his status as a person, worthy of the same rights and protection as any human.
This moral dimension ripples out in this tale, which is also a story of human rights, and civil rights. The fairy tale setting here does not mask the hunger for justice at the heart of this film. Like Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), the story is rooted in a harsh truth. Unlike Pan’s Labyrinth, which alternates between fable and the dark reality of Spain’s civil war, the world del Toro has built in The Shape of Water is entirely steeped in a fairy tale world, albeit with historical references – references which are still clearly relevant today.
The Shape of Water is also politically subversive in an important way. This film features a female lead who owns her own sexuality and seems, to at least some degree, free from the usual dominant male gaze common to mainstream cinema. She is freed to be rebellious, and creative with her desire, as one beautiful sequence in her apartment shows. Her creativity also results in an unfortunate mishap for the cinema below her home.
It is rare, still, in a Hollywood film destined for large audiences, to subvert the traditional dominant male gaze. The parity between Eliza and her lover, where they take turns to protect each other, and the evident regard the director and camera hold toward Hawkins, are still unusual in this cinematic genre.
The Shape of Water provides enormous narrative and visual pleasure, especially for those willing to just float into the story, meander along its twists and turns – many rather unexpected – and into love.
Right until just before the end credits, it is impossible to be sure how the story will end. Del Toro creates, here again, a work of great sensibility and humanity.
General UK Release: 14th February 2018
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor; based on a story by Guillermo del Toro
Cinematographer: Dan Laustsen
Production design: Paul D Austerberry
Music: Alexandre Desplats
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Doug Jones, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg
Originally published on Cinemazine, October 2017