The Shape of Water (US, 2017)


I hope you’ve seen this film but if you haven’t don’t read this: go see.

I was uneasy about Phantom Thread a few shots in but I was sold on The Shape of Water during the first shot that ‘steadicams’ through Elisa’s (Sally Hawkins) underwater apartment. The beautiful (throughout) set design becomes magical as the ripples of water wobble our vision. We are in a fairy tale land where it appears that there will be a happy ending but, as in Pan’s Labyrinth, the reality of the time – the early ‘60s – threatens political violence.

Del Toro loves monsters; he apparently made a pact with them that he would love them if they allowed him to go to the toilet and so avoid wetting his bed when a child. Misunderstood beasts populate his films, most obviously in Hellboy 2 where the hero tells his girlfriend that it’s great in the troll market because no one stares at him. The monster in The Shape of Water is based on ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon’, an early 3D movie released in 1954.

Paul D. Austerberry deserves plaudits for the production design, it almost trumps the narrative, but there is no doubt that it is Guillermo del Toro’s vision we are seeing. His colour schemes are always calculated – green dominates here – and always beautiful to look at. As is Sally Hawkins’ magnificent performance as Elsa, a mute whose loneliness leads her to the ‘monster’. Richard Jenkins, as a closeted gay man, is also excellent in his heart breaking portrayal of being a man ‘out of his time’. Not only does his homosexuality make his life difficult his commercial art has become unfashionable.

It’s 1963, Cold War paranoia and civil rights protests are ongoing in a country under siege from, as the film suggests, itself. The civil rights protests are only referenced in passing but the hatred of the ‘Other’, intensified by the Cold War, is the focus. Michael Shannon, the film’s real monster, plays the security man who wants the ‘creature’ dissected. The Russian spies are played for laughs but are – apart from the sympathetic scientist – as culpable as the Americans.

Elsa’s apartment is above an Orpheum cinema, with is showing the Biblical epic ‘The Song of Ruth’, and it is as if all the ideas of cinema have percolated through the roof to infiltrate her life. Of course, cinema infiltrated del Toro’s life as a boy and his films are on-going homages to films he loves but he manages to avoid pastiche, in the way Tarantino has no wish to, and so offers a rich dish of layered meanings. The poster for The Creature from the Black Lagoon featured the titular ‘monster’ carrying out the pathetic female lead; del Toro reimagines this to make the female a protagonist of verve and resource. Her silence is contrasted with the loquacious Zelda (Octavia Spencer on great form) who also representsAfrican Americans; both are also working class cleaners in the government research institute.

Shannon’s stricken Strickland’s middle class life, with its burgeoning consumerism epitomised by his purchase of a ‘teal’ Cadillac, comes across as a ‘Stepford Wife’ hell and is particularly disturbing when he has sex with his wife. Strickland is literally rotting, his injured fingers turn black and he constantly eats sweets, and his soullessness is only matched by the ‘five star’ general who isn’t impressed by loyalty. Strickland’s shown putting into practice the manifesto of The Art of Positive Thinking and we see how its philosophy to be empty.

At the heart of the film is Hawkins’ Elsa whose pathos, particularly in the musical sequence when she imagines finding her voice, is moving. Doug Jones’ creature is a magnificent costume brilliantly embodied. The film requires more than one viewing to revel in its cinematography and marvel at the marvellous.

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