Jim Hilton reviews Guillermo del Toro’s ‘The Shape of Water’
Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-tipped film is a dreamy, tangled in teal love-story, framed by a luscious pastiche of Cold War America. Fans of ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ (2006) will find themselves in similarly dark-fantastical territory. Here again, a magical encounter offers a chance of escape from the cruel dictations of 20th century history. It’s a magical realist formula which may not break new ground, but still has the power to move.
Elisa (Sally Hawkins) works as a cleaner in a secret government facility in Baltimore. Mute since childhood, and with the scars of an ancient wound still visible on her neck, she communicates by signing. It seems a nice little life, with her apartment above the grand old Orpheum picture-palace, morning masturbations in the tub and hardboiled eggs for lunch. But when Agent Strickland (Michael Shannon) returns from South America with a mysterious amphibian prisoner, Elisa’s natural curiosity leads her far out of the grooves of the day-to-day.
Over an irresistible courtship sequence, Elisa and the sea creature (played by Doug Jones) fall in love over eggs and Benny Goodman. In him she finds a partner in muteness, and she teaches him to sign. The powers that be have other plans of course. Strickland wants the “the Asset” vivisected, and a big pat on the back, while Dr Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), with all the conscientiousness of science, wants it to be saved and studied. Some fairly procedural Cold War intrigue runs alongside, but ultimately slows things down. There’s a big dip in pace around the one hour mark, at which the story seems as though it doesn’t quite know what to do, only to gain speed again for the final stretch.
Sally Hawkins nails it as Elisa. She makes Elisa’s twee, rather starry-eyed countenance into a sign of readiness for action and radical transformation. We feel her as someone who’s been waiting their whole life for something, and when it arrives, it’s wonderful to watch the ease and confidence with which she takes it. As Strickland, Michael Shannon is all jaw and knuckles. After his hand is mauled by the creature, he reassures his concerned superior: “I still got my thumb, my trigger and my pussy finger’. Richard Jenkins does a beautiful turn as Giles, an aging commercial painter, and Octavia Spencer lands every punchline as Elisa’s friend and colleague, Zelda.
As always, del Toro speaks a layered language of cinematic reference. Creature From the Black Lagoon (1956) and La Belle et La Bête (1946) are clear influences. The Story of Ruth (1960) and Mardi Gras (1958) play in the downstairs cinema, while Giles has his TV-set tuned to re-runs of old Shirley Temple and Bill Robinson movies. Del Toro is also a self-confessed player of video games, and there is a certain enhanced reality to Paul D. Austerberry’s production designs which recalls the era-nostalgic environments of franchises like Bioshock and Fallout.
The year is 1962, but Strickland’s clandestine facility feels more steam-age than space-age. Following Elisa and Zelda through its leaky corridors and lavatories, where even America’s top scientists can’t seem to hit the urinal, we build a heightened sensitivity to plumbing and to the whole liquid architecture of things.
Water’s everywhere. It’s an aqua-imaginary that infuses not only the film’s greeny, bath-tile palette, but its whole tone. It offers a refracted, alternate vision of the past, which is at once familiar and uncanny. The exaggerated moulds and sheen of American consumerland—Cadillacs, key lime pie and candybox suburbia—sit strangely next to Elisa and Giles’ apartments, which have a touch of the enchanted grotto. They’re all dark wood and elongated depth, with a cultivated antiqueness and a comforting ersatz quality. Alexandre Desplat’s score, following Elisa around with chirpy accordions, is more turn of the century Paris than post-war Baltimore (there’s a generous absence of rocking around the clock).
Del Toro takes pleasure in jolting us from this cosy storybook atmosphere, as occasionally the hard realities of the time, of Jim Crow racism, of homophobia, sexism, torture and state violence rear into ugly view. The effect is certainly sinister, but it can sometimes feel like painful histories are being reduced to the stuff of atmospherics.
On the other hand, ‘The Shape of Water’ feels like a welcome antidote to a TV series like ‘Stranger Things’, which also deals in American nostalgia, the supernatural and shady government facilities. There, all the ingredients of a 1980’s mise-en-scene are incorporated with a fetishizing loyalty to history, while the evil forces which drive its story are completely made-up. ‘The Shape of Water’ does the opposite. It plays freely with the setting, but respects the political nature of power. Even human-to-supernatural love is subject to the whims and bloodthirsts of U.S. imperialism.
‘The Shape of Water’ is a gorgeously designed film which doesn’t always work as a thriller, but excels as an ethereal, odd-ball romance. It’s got a taste for some of the thick ironies of mid-century American culture, and isn’t afraid to point out the evils. It’s nostalgic for cinema in a way which could be sweet or cloying, depending on your tolerance. If you liked Hugo (2011), The Artist (2011), or Cinema Paradiso (1988), you’ll probably like this, but if not you still might like it. It’s definitely one for the big screen.