By Jack Dignan
Guillermo del Toro has made a career out of telling monster stories, but never have they been in the ways one might expect. The old classic Universal monster movies always saw those inhuman creatures as an enemy that must be terminated, but throughout del Toro’s filmography, his love for their uniqueness has allowed them to evolve from the enemy to the hero. Sure, he’s made evil monsters before, but the monsters themselves are not inherently evil, even in a world where giant robots are sent out to bash their brains in.
Now his love for monsters has evolved into the literal sense with The Shape of Water, an immaculate Beauty and the Beast-esque fairytale that finally gives the monsters some sex appeal. What a wild time to be alive. We follow the story of Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a lonely mute janitor working in a top-secret research centre in 1960s America. She, along with co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), uncovers a secret hidden in one of the labs. And this secret comes in the form of a humanoid fish man (Doug Jones), who sparks a connection with Elisa in a way nobody else could possibly understand.
It’s a beautiful, charming and dazzling tale of untamed love and universal acceptance, transforming del Toro’s affinity for creatures beyond our world into a love story the whole world can get behind. This isn’t just about a sexy fish man. The Shape of Water is a heartfelt embrace of everyone and everything on this wonderful planet, accepting each and every one of them as their own individual beings worthy of the world’s love. It’s a story we need now more than ever, told through the unique, bittersweet eyes of one of modern cinema’s most ambitious filmmakers.
You’ll laugh, love, scream and squirm your way through this bedazzling, genre-defying motion picture. A lot of what transpires really shouldn’t work. None of the things del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor would be nearly as effective in the hands of anybody less competent. A black and white sequence I’d dare not spoil would sound of place when described verbally, but when on screen it works wonders, defying all odds and expectations to bring to the world something truly new and wonderful.
Sally Hawkins is the glue that holds this thing together. Her performance here is unbridled. She’s forced to convey so much by doing so little, and the final result is spellbinding. Her connection with the fish man is unconventional, but brilliantly unique, and the two spark off in the most admirable, loveable of ways. Doug Jones, an expert at acting while covered in extreme amounts of make-up, is phenomenal. Their two separate lives intertwine and parallel, slowly unfolding the truth as the film goes along and bringing everything together for the most amazing finale this film could’ve delivered.
Also fantastic are the supporting cast, who don’t deserve to go without recognition. Richard Jenkins is a standout as Elisa’s kindhearted artist neighbour, also struggling to deal with society’s rejection. These characters are a series of lonely souls, each representing a different thematic interest of the narrative, and every actor is without flaw. Michael Shannon takes on a villainous role, and he’s just as Michael Shannon-y as ever, but just as brilliant too. Michael Stuhlbarg is in this also, no doubt having an excellent 2017 after appearing in three strong Oscar contenders.
Sadly, the main area this film falters is within the simplicity and familiarity of the narrative. Yes, we’re talking about a fish man + woman romance, but when you strip away the weirdness of the situation and all the wonderful, jaw-dropping sequences that pop up every now and again, the core narrative has been done to death, and because of that, it’s not hard to guess where things are going. You’ll be charmed to no end, blown away by the beauty of the visuals and the score, but when it comes down to it, it’s a story that’s fairly easy to predict.
Still, I loved this movie. For me, it’s one of del Toro’s best, and the one that’s finally starting to gain him some much-deserved awards season recognition. This is a wonderful, poetic and visually stunning tale of love and beauty, one that audiences all over the world are definitely going to latch onto, and one they’re unlikely to soon forget. If you’re after a little bittersweet joy in your life, make sure you see this movie. The world will be a better place.
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