Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Rating: 4 Stars (Out of 5)
The Shape Of Water is a film that starts out submerged and only gets deeper from there. It opens underwater, with what appears, at first, like a shipwreck. Then we see blinds on the window and floating table-lamps as chairs bob harmlessly around a table, as if a slow poltergeist were at play. It is not we who have gone to a world below water but water itself that has - miraculously - been poured over our world. What better start to Guillermo Del Toro's fantastical film about two lost souls swimming in fishbowls?
She is a princess without voice. Elisa wakes up from behind an eye-mask, fills her bathtub, tosses eggs in water to boil them and then sets an egg-timer - to time herself - before she masturbates in the tub every day, a woman who knows the need to love herself. She is an orphan who cannot speak but can, when by herself, do some tap-dancing in the hallway. She is a heroine who likes her secrets.
We are in America in 1962, where the cold war is keeping things moist. There was a fire, she's told, in a chocolate factory. "Oh my!" exclaims her friend who lives next door above an old-timey movie theatre, smelling the news he's just reported. "Toasted cocoa. Tragedy and delight, hand in hand." She smiles as he, bald and unemployed, watches black and white films and illustrates a happy family merrily mesmerised by jelly. He used to work in advertising, you see. His sketch is a commercial fiction.
Things are not as whole in the world Del Toro draws. A fat man waits for a bus holding a big, frosted cake with a slice cut out, an illustrator fills his refrigerator with slices of once-bitten key lime pie, and a hand we often see has two fingers missing.
Elisa, as we know, cannot speak - though her smile can light up a room, or an ocean - and she is enchanted by an undersea god who eats cats and is smitten by eggs and record players. This creature doesn't know what she lacks, and instead provides her a secure stage, where she can lead him into dance, where she can twirl and dazzle and imagine breaking into song. In front of him, she is unafraid to be beautiful.
Early in the film, as we watch Elisa go to work, she suddenly whistles in time with Alexander Desplat's background score as if she can hear what we can. Is she imagining this fairy tale or are we? It is decidedly unclear, though it is evident Del Toro has, once again, fallen in love with his playthings. The Mexican maestro is the king of creatures, be it the nightmarish yet lyrical ones from Pan's Labyrinth, the quirkily superheroic ones from the Hellboy films or the ineffably large ones from Pacific Rim. This time he has crafted a very adult fairy tale, and the result is a dream.
Not that dreams are easy. Elisa is immediately drawn to the creature the minute he is wheeled into the dodgy government laboratory she works in, but the world is more hostile. He is considered both dangerous and useful, a creature who could, if cut up and dissected, aid the Americans in the space race. Del Toro, never as subtle as he is subversive, makes the all-American a villain and lets a Soviet spy help the creature, but that is for later. For now here is Elisa, teasing her merman out of his water using vinyl records and tender sign-language. The word 'music,' for example, in her sign language is elegantly spelt out using both hands, like a casually played violin.
This is a love story for the ages, and Del Toro intentionally evokes seemingly classical images - there are many movies watched within this movie - as well as imagery. At one point we see the creature, aquatic and reptilian and large and lovely, standing in the middle of a nearly-extinct movie theatre, bathed in theatrical light, like the ultimate 3D b-movie. Another time, she allows us to step inside her head to see the all-singing all-dancing - and all-loving - spectacular soundstage of her imagination, and the soundlessness that follows immediately after is enough to make the heart halt.
The magical Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, and the actress delivers the year's most stirring performance to create this measured yet fearless creature. She uses deliberate, delicate movements of her head and hands to convey all the meaning in the world, and she is as plucky as she is precise. He, played by the former contortionist Doug Jones, is a Del Toro favourite, a man nearly made of water who nevertheless manages to evoke love and longing. They may not say a word, but they fit together like the lines of a sonnet.
The reliably excellent Richard Jenkins plays Elisa's artistic, awestruck neighbour, and he too is far from whole, a man hiding age and sexual orientation behind a toupee. Michael Shannon is fearsome as the villain of the piece, a man who introduces himself to Elisa in the same breath as the one used to list the properties of his electric cattle prod, as if he was himself a weapon. Meanwhile, the flawless Michael Stuhlbarg - who has had an unbelievable year with Call Me By Your Name and The Post alongside this film - plays a scientist enamoured by the creature, looking at him artistically instead of clinically, as his job demands.
The Shape Of Water is a swooningly romantic film but also an assuredly weird one. Dan Laustsen's cinematography, dark and deep, feels like a lucid dream and Del Toro draws out the story like a crazed poet. When Elisa's ear touches the creature's chest, we hear the crashing of waves, and while everyone wants to use this so-called god to wage war, she wants only to make love. She does, and it is tremendous, and after this she even looks at raindrops - tiny moving bits of water - with renewed fascination, while Madeline Peyroux sings of love and lovers. Guillermo Del Toro has always made sensationally strange movies, but with this one it is as if he, like his heroine, is finally unafraid to be beautiful.