Director Guillermo del Toro applies his off-kilter sensibility to this horror romance, which reads like an idiosyncratic collision of Edward Scissorhands, Amelie and The Creature From The Black Lagoon. Like del Toro’s Spanish-language, out-and-out classics, Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, The Shape Of Water is a fairytale studded with sharp barbs of horror – and a timely underlying theme about ‘forbidden’ love.
Sally Hawkins stars as Eliza, a mute, lonely woman whose only close friend is the eccentric neighbour in the next apartment – Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay commercial illustrator who, like Eliza, lives alone. Each day, Eliza wakes up, puts some eggs on the boil, has a bath, enthusiastically pleasures herself, and then heads off to work on the bus.
Eliza does the night shift at a military installation, where she cleans the concrete-clad corridors and dingy men’s toilets with her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer). One day, though, Eliza and Zelda find themselves scrubbing the blood off the floor of a cavernous laboratory; a group of scientists have found a humanoid, amphibious creature in South America, and dragged it back to the installation in Baltimore for closer study. The creature’s watched over by Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon, in full-on glowering villain mode) who displays an almost psychotic hatred for it. Gradually, Eliza becomes acquainted with the nameless creature in its pressurised water tank, and with the help of Zelda and a kindly scientist, Dr Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), hatches a plan to rescue it from captivity.
Del Toro puts an incredible amount of detail into his fantasy worlds, and his heightened version of a late-50s America is a sumptuous thing all by itself. He gets at the cosy unreality of the period in all its nostalgia – the huge cars, the starry musicals and widescreen biblical epics playing at the cinema beneath Eliza’s apartment. But little by little, he lets the harshness cut through, like a blade jabbing through a warm blanket. As Eliza waits for a bus, in a street that looks like a backlot from a classic MGM musical, we see the Vietnam war play out on the television. When Giles goes to sit and swoon over the waiter he likes in an all-American diner, he’s disturbed to see his outburst of racism when a black couple come in and try to find a seat.
There are dark little details throughout The Shape Of Water, and it isn’t difficult to see the parallels del Toro’s drawing here: the racism, homophobia and small-mindedness that made certain relationships a social taboo in 60s America. It was a wonderful age, the director seems to say, but only if you were lucky enough to be white, middle class and heterosexual. For their own reasons, Eliza, Giles, Zelda and the creature itself (superbly played by del Toro regular Doug Jones) are all shut out of the American dream offered up by shows like Happy Days or Mister Ed (the latter of which shows up on Giles’s TV screen at one point).
Del Toro (and co-writer Vanessa Taylor) has fun with Shannon’s character, in particular – a rich, arrogant white guy who’s used to winning and getting his own way. One of the funniest scenes involves Strickland going to a car dealership and poring over the sensual curves of a Cadillac – a salesman appeals to his vanity and his yen for perfection, and the Colonel is quickly hooked in.
In other words, del Toro cheerfully and entertainingly flips the norms of an American mid-20th century genre film on its head. Here, the marginalised and the downtrodden are the heroes, and activities once meant to induce shame are given free expression. Even today, racists, homophobes, misogynists, bullies of all types, want their targets to feel shame, to live with the idea that what they are makes them worthless. In Shape Of Water, del Toro actively celebrates otherness.
Superbly acted by its diverse cast – Hawkins, in particular, is captivating in the lead – and made with evident care, The Shape Of Water is surely del Toro’s best film since Pan’s Labyrinth. His previous two films, Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak, were technically stunning hymns to Japanese kaiju movies and classic horror movies respectively. The Shape Of Water holds equal affection for the cornerstones of cinema, from Golden Age musicals to 50s B-movies; what makes this film special, though, is the tenderness of its storytelling and warmth of its characters.
Gore and mayhem aside, The Shape Of Water positively hums with humanity and optimism. Classic status surely beckons.
The Shape Of Water is out on the 14th February in UK cinemas.