Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a true labor of love for the filmmaker. We’ve seen him tackle mainstream blockbuster material with Pacific Rim and Hellboy, but this new, surreal love story has more in common with his adored 2006 film, Pan’s Labyrinth.
It holds the same gentle dark fantasy backbone, using dense colours to tell its story, which follows a mute woman, Eliza (Sally Hawkins), who works as a janitor in a mysterious government laboratory. She keeps in the background, never quite understanding what’s happening in the lab, but there’s a constant sense of urgency around her as scientists and government officials race around looking taut. Eliza’s life takes a fantastical turn when she uncovers the secrets enveloping her workplace, a strange fish-like creature is being held in a water chamber, both tested on and beaten to submission. The creature — also called The Asset (Doug Jones) — is shy with a temper, it is strong in the water but dies without it, and Eliza begins to befriend it.
The final product is worth the wait, nameless and true to life, a piece of movie magic that will surely live on long after its festival run this year.
This twisted love story has every excuse to be shocking, weird and unapproachable. However, del Toro uses the tenderness of Hawkins’ character and a moodiness that allows The Shape of Water to become a modern retelling of beauty and the beast. His vision isn’t family-friendly or posh, no princesses or well-mannered beasts. His film holds unique from beginning to end with the director’s signature gore and aesthetic nuance. So, when Eliza finds her amphibious friend watching a movie at Toronto’s Elgin theatre (several scenes were filmed here) and you find yourself in that very same theatre enthralled with The Shape of Water, you realize you’re experiencing a special moment.
During a Q&A at the Toronto International Film Festival, del Toro said 95% of the film uses practical effects, which is incredible considering its modest budget and beautiful look. His creature took years to create and execute. The final product is worth the wait, nameless and true to life, a piece of movie magic that will surely live on long after its festival run this year. The colour palette is rich and haunting, bright reds signify lifelines and love, blue envelops much of picture and a depressing yellowy green encompasses the government structure in which Eliza feels isolated.
It’s at once a master crafted, involved romance and a meditation on the world’s voiceless masses, the lonely rejects and working poor who have a good heart but are treated like an afterthought. The enforcer for this state of mind is Strickland (Michael Shannon in yet another superb antagonist persona), a villainous, candy-eating agent keen on getting secrets out of The Asset via torture.
The comfy 60s backdrop, the exquisite mise en scène only akin to other del Toro works and a lavish piece of cinema in every respect: The Shape of Water will turn your mood around, it will ignite a semi-permanent smile on your face and remind you why you cherish the movies.