words by olivia armstrong (@starcadet96)
Guillermo del Toro is something of a visionary when it comes to his storytelling and presentation. The man is an endless foundation of creativity and he refuses to be trapped by the conditions set out in traditional film-making. His aims are higher and more ambitious and the results are endlessly fascinating. However, out of his impressive body of work, The Shape of Water stands out as his most intimate and personal work to date.
What makes him one of the most interesting and impressive directors currently working is both his commitment to his ideas and his visual talent in bringing his stories to life. Indeed, it’s hard to think of another director who could take this idea and produce something extraordinary. He only cares that his stories are told in the way he envisions them, as can be seen in his most acclaimed work Pan’s Labyrinth. Similar to Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water plants one foot firmly in fantasy and the other in reality. It takes the romanticism of fairy tales and old Hollywood films and translates it into 60’s cold war era America.
Every member of the cast is pitch perfect in their roles but a special mention has to go to Sally Hawkins. Being the main character, it is already expected that she would steal the show but her devotion to the role cannot be overstated. Elisa is a mute and lonely woman, who finds solace in her work-friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), who shares her love of classic Hollywood movies. She works at a research facility, mopping floors and keeping her head down. Every intimate detail of her life is explored (pun intended) and she is utterly loveable as a hopeless romantic who conspires to break out the creature (or “The Asset”) she has fallen in love with. Even moments that should feel too silly or too cheesy are heart-wrenching because of her commitment to the character.
What is apparent throughout is Del Toro’s deep sympathy and empathy for those deemed worthless for not fitting the ideal mould of what the current time prioritises. This obviously comes through best with Elisa and the Asset but the whole film is an ode to the love story of the outcasts; every heroic character suffers from the prejudices of the time in some way. Giles is gay, as well as a struggling artist and Zelda is a black woman in 1960’s America. The paranoia concerning communism and Russian spying is also explored via another character, who proves vital in Elisa’s plan. Del Toro has stated that a large amount of inspiration for this film came from his own feelings living in America as an immigrant, a feeling of complete isolation and finding other outsiders to connect with.
By contrast, the head of the research facility (Michael Shannon) is terrifying in how he shows the absolute worst mankind can offer while still being an example of what has been glorified and distorted into a twisted desire to assert dominance and prove his masculinity to ridiculous lengths. He presents at first as a creepy, bigoted but inefficient man who vastly underestimates what Elisa is capable of but as the rug is pulled out from beneath him, the simple metaphor of him being the real monster becomes terrifyingly literal.
Del Toro has said that out of all the films he has made, this is the one he considers the proudest of at this point in his career. This makes a great deal of sense; despite the universal themes of love and romanticism against the backdrop of a cold and unforgiving point in history, it also feels intimately personal to him as a director. Out of all his films, this one feels the closest to his personal viewpoints towards love (a hopeless romantic and believer in true love, similar to Elisa) and whom he considers to be the true monsters, hiding in plain sight amongst us as we look away to place blame on those living in isolation.
In a way, it almost feels like a spiritual successor to Pan’s Labyrinth but with a more direct look into adulthood, rather than the viewpoint of a child. His complete commitment to the idea keeps it from being laughable and instead finds it captivating. It’s a beautiful, dreamlike film and may well be considered one of the greats in several years.