Guillermo Del Toro’s new film is a romance monster movie. Sally Hawkins plays Eliza, a mute woman who works as a cleaner at a laboratory. One day a man named Strickland, played by Michael Shannon, arrives with a new subject to be tested. It’s an amphibious man who was worshipped in his country but is now a slave to their experimentations. They believe he holds the secret to beating the Russians into space and are willing to kill it to learn from it. But Eliza is able to establish a real emotional connection with the being and decides to try and free him.
The trailer for this film sold the idea that Hawkins was a broken kind of figure whose life is fixed by the monster. I was very pleased to find this is not the case and in fact Eliza’s life is pretty fulfilling before she meets the monster. She has a routine that she clearly enjoys, she’s surrounded by interesting characters that have a great deal of affection for her, and she even seems to enjoy her job for the most part. No one looks down at her, the scientists give her a friendly nod as they walk past and even Michael Shannon’s villainous Strickland, speaks to them as equals early in the film. Really what the first act allows us to see is that Eliza is the perfect person to establish this connection with the amphibious man and teach him about the world. She’s sensitive and kind and has a perfect support network to help her try to accomplish the feat.
This network is made up of some lovingly realised supporting characters. Richard Jenkins is the doddering old artist with a fondness for pie. Octavia Spencer is Eliza’s chatty work friend. Michael Stuhlbarg is the sensitive scientist who doesn’t want to see the creature destroyed. Stuhlbarg is once again the master of poignant looks of concern and regret. The villains are great fun too. Shannon is much more than an intimidating presence he is afforded the time to build a character with understandable motivations and anxieties. What’s striking about the film is that there are so many fun roles to play. Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor have written lively characters that are clearly a joy to perform.
Hawkins in particular is spectacular in her lead role. She’s sometimes meek, sometimes assertive but always incredibly expressive. It’s a very endearing performance. She acts a lot with sign language and is able to use emphasis or gentleness in her gestures to invoke a lot emotion. At times I wished I had seen more of her and her amphibian man together but ultimately in the sequence where she has to explain why the man must be saved, it is her performance that sells me. It’s important to me that he be saved because it is clearly important to her. Hawkins is doing all of the heavy lifting in this relationship and does so effortlessly.
The narrative may be a conventional Beauty and the Beast story but the execution is highly innovative. In terms of production design and style, this is classic Del Toro. Eliza’s apartment building is something out of a modern fairy tale. The scene in which she floods her apartment to embrace her aquatic lover is utterly absurd and purely wonderful. The film is full of surprises, not least the somewhat kinky erotica. Think of it as a whimsical version of Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession.
There is some narrative messiness. I wondered why we needed the subplot about Strickland buying a new car or Richard Jenkins and his pie shop. Ultimately these build the world of the story but I wondered how they played into the overall theme of the piece. But even these narrative eccentricities are just part of the film’s charm. There are clearly nothing but good intentions here.
The Shape of Water is Del Toro at the height of his powers. It’s a character driven modern fantasy that looks gorgeous and urges us to embrace the weird things in life.
5 / 5
Paul Salt is the co-host of One Good Thing.