Few directors are able to tackle the genre of “adult fairy tales” quite in the fashion that Guillermo del Toro can. Be it fear of failure or inability to grasp what can make the genre so palpable, other directors attempt to play it safe. Not so for del Toro. A keen nack and understanding, not just of cinema as a whole, A modern day fabulist of the highest order, it’s no surprise that not only is The Shape of Water a dazzlingly beautiful motion picture, but quite possible a minor work of art.
Things seem almost too easy when it comes to del Toro’s oeuvre. Brimming with equal parts intelligence and creativity, he makes films that dance on the lip of reality, managing to marry the new with the old. Specially as it concern the practical with the world of CGI. If there was one weakness that holds him back from being in the conversation of preeminent directors, it’s one that’s not entirely his fault. Which is to say he is a victim of perceived expectations. Something his latest attempts to sidestep to great aplomb.
The Shape of Water is set in a forever rainy Baltimore, sometime in the early 60’s. The Cold War rages on, behind closed doors and in research facilities much like one the heroine, Elisa Esposito (a sublime Sally Hawkins), works in. Pushed aside by a world incapable of accepting those deemed different, Elisa doesn’t let being mute incapacitate her completely. What few friends she has are also ostracized by circumstance, proving to be staunch compatriots as well.
Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a fellow cleaning lady, plays the part of protective mother hen at work. One moment making sure she clocks in on time, the next regaling her with tales of her foolish husband at home. Her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins, always the VIP) is her confidant, providing compassion and company as needed. The simple act of sitting on a couch, watching old musicals, enriches their lives, ever so slightly.
Then one day a government agent (Michael Shannon, oozing southern “hospitality”) returns from the Amazon with a mysterious creature in tow. Along with the assistance from scientist Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), the two hope the gain a foot up in the space race. The arrival of the amphibian man (Doug Jones) sets off a spark inside Elisa. A spark that will effect all she comes into contact with. None more so, than the one which ignites between the two of the. What initially seems odd, blossoms into a sweetly strange romance. One taking The Shape of Water down unexpected avenues.
On the page, the story may be simplistic. What elevates it is a superb pairing of music, set design blended propulsive action. A tale doesn’t have to scale skyscrapers to make an impact, it just needs to resonate on a human level, even if monsters be involved. At the same time, those expecting a straight fantasy, may be disappointed from uninformed expectations. Once again del Toro works instead with magic surrealism. That realm where the every day casually brushes shoulders with that of the fantastical or even mythological.
Everything works in The Shape of Water, thanks to the excellent cast. Spencer plays another variation on the sort of character she’s honed over the last several years. A role she could sleepwalk through, yet still manages to make energetic and alive, regardless of the screen time. This also extends to Shannon and Stuhlbarg (having a career year in 2017). They inhabit flip-sides of the same coin, one giving into pressure and baser instincts. The other opting opting for compassion over promotion. In a scant few scenes they are able to add layers of complexity to each both characters.
Art Director Nigel Churcher gives life to a beautifully thriving world. One where every nook and cranny informs either the state of the city or small insights into the lives of the forlorn characters that dwell there. For each of them is scorned or scarred in some fashion. Be it the aching desire for love, appreciation, acceptance, attention or gratification. It propels them headfirst into an adventure the likes of which will change them forever. If they survive it.
A good director works hard to make a solid film that also can turn a profit. Possibly with a few corners cut in quality along the way. Del Toro isn’t such a director. More of a master craftsman, he makes works that dazzle or challenge. Mostly made with his own money, they are dizzying journeys for those who wish to follow.
In a year filled with brilliant films, The Shape of Water manages to stand apart from the pack. A sweeping, wondrous love letter to cinema and the kinds of stories that move even the hardest of hearts, it’s simply not to be missed.