- Colin Fraser
THE SHAPE OF WATER
FOUR AND A HALF STARS When a mute meets a merman in a research facility, anything can happen.
Starring Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon
PERIOD DRAMA #THESHAPEOFWATER
Guillermo del Toro has assumed a space that was once dominated by French couple Caro and Jeunet (THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN) whose elegant fables were filled with the wondrously impossible that helped explore and explain a faded here and now. If there is such a genre, it’s one in which del Toro (PAN’S LABYRINTH) excels, and THE SHAPE OF WATER shows how effortlessly he does so.
In the 1950’s, a top-secret research facility houses an aquatic curiosity, a merman perhaps, that the government led by the fierce and unpleasant Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), is determined to dissect. Zelda (Olivia Spencer) and Elisa (Sally Hawkins) are cleaners who have access to the creature’s cell and while Zelda is happy to leave well enough alone, Elisa, who is mute, forms a personal attachment. Their social isolation and specific communication methods put them on the same side of an invisible line. When Elisa learns of Strickland’s plans, she makes plans of her own to save the creature, her friend.
The strength of del Toro is his capacity to find beauty in every scene he writes and shoots. Even when the creature is being tortured for no better reason than discovering his/its pain threshold, del Toro reveals the humanity (and potential beauty) resting under such a scene. As the creature and Elisa bond and her plan takes shape, more and more it is the ‘otherness’ of his story that takes root. As with any fable, the essence of THE SHAPE OF WATER is rather high-concept - they may look or behave differently, but underneath we’re all the same, beauty-and-the-beast, that sort of thing - and therein lies its magnetic appeal. The theme is echoed none-too-subtly in the troubles of Elisa’s house-mate Giles (the terrific Richard Jenkins), an older gay man with needs of his own.
Ultimately, THE SHAPE OF WATER is a transcendent piece whose smart, decisive and eloquent elements come together to create a tantalising whole, one that speaks to a tired, cynical world. It’s the kind of film rarely seen these days, a thing of simple sweetness and extravagant romance in an otherwise tart, bitter world. Rather like the merman himself. Hopefully the (well deserved) slew of award nominations and wins his film has garnered this season will encourage more to follow del Toro on his magically mystical journey.