Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a fairy tale, a story of love, loss and friendship, and a magical cinematic joy.
Sexually Fluidby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Sometimes a film can open a door and take you into an alternate universe. That’s what happens with The Shape of Water. It’s Guillermo del Toro’s magical fairy tale of loneliness, friendship and loss. Set in Baltimore during the Cold War in 1962, it’s a richly textured film that beautifully recreates the urban America of that time and weaves in references to classic B movies, US TV series and fairy tales.
Sally Hawkins is Elisa, a lonely woman how is mute. She lives in rooms above a small, fleapit cinema and she works as a night cleaner at a high security government research facility. Her only friends are her fellow cleaner Zelda (wonderful Octavia Spencer), who speaks for her at work, and Giles (Richard Jenkins), her neighbour, an equally lonely, middle-aged, unsuccessful gay graphic artist.
A strange amphibious man-like creature with a finny carapace, imprisoned in a tank of water, is brought forcibly into the lab from South America by security chief Strickland (sadistically cruel Michael Shannon) and treated as if it’s a monster. Alone with it while she cleans, Elisa sees a kindred spirit and she finds that she’s able to communicate with it by feeding it boiled eggs and teaching it sign language.
Shot in shades of watery sea green, alternating with murky brown interiors, the film’s pretext is the tug of war over the creature that ensues between the Americans and the Russians, and it also takes in the racist and sexist attitudes prevalent at that time. The creature itself is revered as a God in the Amazon it originates from, but the Americans want to vivisect it for research to help them in the race to send a man into space – “Crack that thing open!” The Russians want to prevent the Americans gaining any advantage. Meanwhile the two lonely souls, Elisa and the creature (Doug Jones) fall in love and she’s determined to save it with the help of her friends Zelda and Giles.
As well as its beautifully consistent tone of fantasy, there’s compassion, humanity, humour, cruelty, love and even sex with the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and ultimately a magical transcendence that makes you leave the cinema floating on a cloud. If you liked Pan’s Labyrinth, you will love The Shape of Water.
The Shape of Water premieres at the 61st BFI London Film Festival on 10, 11 and 13 October 2017.