Director: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Jenkins
Words: Carly Stevenson
Widely praised as his best work since Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Del Toro’s latest feature is a thoughtful retelling of the age-old Beauty and the Beast trope of fairy-tales and classic monster movies alike.
The plot focuses on the unlikely romance between a mute janitor and a humanoid-amphibian creature imprisoned in the top-secret government laboratory where she works.
Thematically, The Shape of Water is as reminiscent of an Angela Carter story (see The Bloody Chamber) as it is The Creature of the Black Lagoon. What elevates The Shape of Water from a generic ‘creature feature’ is Del Toro’s signature Gothic aesthetic and his engagement with socio-political issues relating to gender, race and sexuality.
Elisa’s (Sally Hawkins) only allies – Giles, her closeted homosexual roommate (Richard Jenkins), Zelda, her African-American co-worker (Octavia Spencer) and Doctor Hoffstetler, a marine biologist and Soviet spy (Michael Stuhlbarg) – are outsiders who exist on the margins of Cold War-era Baltimore.
Likewise, the film’s ‘monster’ is a liminal figure whose existence is an ‘affront’ to the socially conservative, prosperous, yet deeply unstable American identity, as embodied by Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon). This backdrop allows Del Toro to explore a number of issues that are, in many ways, as relevant today as they were in 1962: institutional racism, harassment in the workplace and the expression of dangerous, heteronormative attitudes from people in power.
Interestingly, Elisa’s relationship with the amphibian man (Doug Jones) is never portrayed as transgressive or taboo. Rather, we are encouraged to see their intimacy as natural. Female masturbation is represented in similar terms: Elisa’s daily, self-administered stimulation is shown to be as ordinary as boiling an egg.
Submerged in a sumptuous, aquatic colour palette, The Shape of Water is visually-arresting from start to finish. Sally Hawkins’ wordless, sensual performance recalls the charm of silent cinema, which is heightened by Alexandre Desplat’s whimsical score, while Doug Jones’ skilful body acting encourages us see beyond the ‘gill man’ suit to the individual beneath.
The Shape of Water is a moving narrative about otherness that suggestively interrogates humankind’s capacity for tolerance. Del Toro has affectionately transcended his subject matter by offering up a monster movie with hidden depths.