A magical and original ode to classic Hollywood, Del Toro’s latest is an inspiring blend of fantasy, science-fiction and romance
Eliza (Sally Hawkins) has a precise routine. She wakes up, boils eggs, masturbates in the bathtub, and heads off to work as a cleaner in a government facility. She is also mute. As someone with a disability, Eliza is treated differently by everyone else, and is often seen being talked over, with people asking her friends what she is signing, instead of asking her directly. Eliza’s life is not particularly solitary – she has strong relationships with her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins). Still, Eliza’s life is marred by an undeniable sense of solitude, as nobody in her life can really understand her experiences.
That is, however, until a top secret delivery arrives at the facility Eliza works at (for some reason Eliza and Zelda have access to this extremely classified material, but suspension of belief is crucial to the film’s beauty). Inside is a mysterious sea creature; an amphibious man that is of great interest to the American government. Eliza begins to develop a friendship with the creature, which takes her life in directions she never expected.
Guillermo Del Toro’s latest feature is set in Baltimore during the 1960s at the height of the Cold War. Despite its American setting, Del Toro filmed in the cities of Toronto and Hamilton in Canada. As someone born in Hamilton, it is truly refreshing to see the magic of film at play, reinventing familiar locations into something else entirely.
Del Toro has always been a filmmaker deeply in love with cinema of all forms – his films span countless genres and concepts. Critics are quick to point out that Del Toro is full of interesting ideas that tend to not translate particularly well on screen. Personally, as a huge fan of the directors work, it’s hard for me to imagine people not being on board with this one. Love and romance are at the very core of The Shape of Water, and the warmth that runs through is more powerful than any of his previous films.
The Shape of Water is indebted to classical Hollywood. It is rife with references to vintage cinema, including a number of discussions about various stars and clips from older films. There is a particularly spectacular moment in an homage to the Fred & Ginger musicals that is one of the film’s highlights. Fascinatingly, the film closely mirrors a more classical Hollywood film structure while still maintaining Del Toro’s penchant for B-movie violence and gore. The phrase ‘a love letter to cinema’ may be a bit overused, but it fits this film rather beautifully. The film is a pitch-perfect blend of science fiction, fantasy, crime procedural, thriller and romance.
Then, of course, there is Hawkins’ performance. As she does not speak, her performance is purely physical. It’s a difficult task to convey emotion without audible dialogue in modern film, but Hawkins does it with such beauty and grace that you almost forget her character cannot speak. Her work feels authentic and grounded. Her eyes and smile are utterly beguiling, and she is absolutely magnetic in every moment. In a film full of endless magic, Hawkins is the most exquisite part of it. The Oscars won’t know what hit them.
The Shape Of Water was screened at the London Film Festival and is released in cinemas on 16 February 2018.