Say what you will of Guillermo Del Toro, but he’s been anything but unoriginal. From Pan’s Labyrinth to Pacific Rim to Crimson Peak, it’s impossible to mistake his signature cinematic style for another director. Throughout his body of work, the strange, the beautiful and the cruel all dance around one another, trading blows as often as the lines between them blur. He and his characters find virtue where others would turn a blind eye, and expose the cruelty where others might choose to see only a reward.
All of these motifs, and all of Del Toro’s exceptional style and unmatched storytelling are present in his Oscar-nominated film The Shape of Water, and it’s unquestionably one of, if not the most astounding works of his career. It’s a fairytale for the modern age, and at its core is nothing more than a woman who is told to see a monster, and instead finds a companion. But you’d be hard pressed to find a similar story that’s told with as much love, passion and courage as this film.
Some directors invest their energy in creating an interesting world, whereas some dedicate themselves to finding the most interesting way to present their story. Del Toro does both in The Shape of Water, building a pitch-perfect American suburb in the midst of the Cold War, and then always finding the most exciting ways to present this world the viewer. This portrayal of 60’s America isn’t blind to the troubling social climate of the time, and the malignant prejudices of the day are ever present, embodied in particular by Michael Shannon’s cruel, patriarchal Professor Strickland, who treats his prized ‘asset’ (the mysterious Amphibian creature) as if he has complete dominion over it, and has plenty of outdated remarks for Zelda (Octavia Spencer) on fine form.
Indeed, this isn’t a cutesy backdrop for a joyous trip down memory lane; it’s a very real climate of ignorance, and an unwillingness to understand anyone perceived as other, in which so few are afforded the luxury of living their lives in peace. This film is open about the cultural phobias of the time, and they serve to isolate our lonely main characters, Sally Hawkins’ Eliza, the film’s mute protagonist, and her gay neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), who is as unable to be himself as Eliza is unable to really connect with the world.
These characters are lonely, outcasts in a world full of other outcasts, unable to even reach out to one another. So when Eliza comes into contact with the mysterious amphibian Strickland has brought to the lab that she cleans with Zelda. He is completely unaware of any way in which she might be ‘incomplete’ (as she herself puts it), seeking only some kind of companion, the connection is as instant as it is deep and meaningful.
This is a beautiful movie about love. It’s also very weird, and Del Toro doesn’t shy away from the stranger aspect of the situation at all. Some may well find certain moments difficult to take in, and I get that. But this film is as much about breaking free of societal taboos as it is about pointing out that they’re there. These weirder moments are tasteful, delicately handled and at times — exceptionally beautiful. To call this movie “eye-opening” is an understatement, and to call it beautiful would almost redefine the meaning of the word. For the beauty in this film isn’t just that it’s pretty, at times it can be hard to look at, and uncomfortable to experience. But Del Toro never loses sight of his focus, and The Shape of Water pushes past the awkward to expose the cruel, and uses the cruel to highlight the importance of the beautiful. Compassion, and the courage to act on that compassion in spite of everything else, are what drive this movie, and are what make it so exceptionally brilliant. Full of fantastic performances, a brilliantly presented world, elegantly crafted plot and one of the most exceptional scores I’ve heard in a long time, this movie is one to see, one to remember and one for the ages.