Life and love are two powerful, mystical qualities that lie at the very heart of what it means to be human.
In Guillermo del Toro’s latest cinematic tour de force, The Shape of Water, we gain a glimpse of how powerful they can be, of how immensely important and real they are in ways that a commercialised holiday in mid-February has no hope of coming close to matching.
At its heart, this retro fantastical fairytale, which mixes film noir, cold war drama, romantic fable and romanticised Amélie-like hyper reality to astoundingly moving effect, is a sobering tale of how we lose sight of the power of both life and love to our great detriment as a species.
Set at the height of the Cold War in the early 1960s, when the sparkling promise of the future is such an intoxicating drug that the Americans and the Soviets will do anything to make it happen, The Shape of Water injects a magical premise into all too too real situation.
In a top secret military complex in Baltimore, mute night cleaner Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins in possibly the standout role of her career) stands by in fascination with friend and close coworker Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) as a tank containing a supposedly menacing creature, a god-like merman (Doug Jones) from South America is wheeled into a massive lab.
Determined to secure the secrets of this creature, Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) sees him as nothing more than an “Asset”, an unknown entity to be sliced, diced, tortured and abused, all in the name of science, progress and military superiority.
The cold, shutdown, old-fashioned Bible-believing racist and misogynist stands in stark contrast to Elisa who sees in the merman, who is never named, a kindred soul, someone, and he is most assuredly a someone to her, who understands what it is like to be a mute outsider in a world that demands noisy, voluble completeness.
As she and the merman bond over eggs and music, with sign language providing a linguistic bridge between two likeminded but still alien to each other, at least at first, souls, we come to see how an ancient creature with powerful abilities and a modern day marginalised cleaner, all but invisible to the powers that be, have a tremendous amount in common.
The very heart of the story may be about love and how it can transcend all of the barriers we erect to shape its course and power, much like the water of the title which is used in many visually allegorical ways throughout the film, but it is also about the way that outsiders, too often dismissed by those at the upper echelons of power, can have a role to play in a world where they are too often pushed to the periphery.
In fact, the outsiders who populate The Shape of Water, and are given narrative room to live, breathe and develop in ways that some of the other main characters aren’t, to quite deliberate effect, are the beating heart of the film.
Along with Elisa and Zelda and the merman who is far more human than any of the people around him, we meet Elisa’s closeted commercial artist neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), a man who because of his hidden sexuality is almost impossibly emotionally-marooned, and the lead scientist under Strickland, Dr Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who comes with considerable, mainstream-alienating secrets of his own.
The Shape of Water then becomes a pitched battle, and a battle it most certainly becomes in its dramatically violent final act, between the outsiders and the inner circle, between ancient forces like love and life and the brutally utilitarian demands of a future represented in the film by shining new model Cadillacs and progressive grocery products like lime-flavoured Jell-O.
There’s no doubt who will win since this is a morality play writ large as are all fairytales if you look close enough, but you remain engaged to the deeply-poetic, immensely-affecting end when the real winner of this beautifully cruel yet heartfelt battle emerges.
Drawing on a rich pallette of fable and fairytale, del Toro crafts a captivating of love unchained from prejudice and bigotry, preconceived notions and inside-the-box thinking, that captures your heart fully and completely.
Oddly enough for a film that takes its time shaping its characters, its slowly-building narrative and its quietly but powerfully articulated message – in common with all of del Toro’s films this is no raw polemic crashing its way clumsily through the narrative like a blind bull in a china shop – its only real misstep is the way it rushes the development of the romance between the merman and Elisa, who wears a galaxy of emotions on her achingly-expressive face.
In no time, the two have bonded, and while you could argue that they are so alike that this is all but inevitable, they remain creatures from two very different worlds, and some fumbling and innocent mistakes in building a bridge of understanding, one that is central to the story’s arc, would have perhaps made the love story a little easier to connect with.
You most certainly connect with Elisa, who portrays the loneliness and emotional isolation of the outsider with a vigour that rends your heart in two time and again, and fall in love with the idea of her finding the man of her dreams in the most unlikeliest of places, but there is something that feels a little too rushed about how she is established as the progressive, robustly heartwarming counterpoint to people like Strickland and his boss, General Hoyt (Nick Searcy) who despite their lust for the glittering baubles of the future, are mired in the small-minded thinking of the past.
While this could potentially taken away the emotional impact of Elisa and the merman’s transcendent love story, the important thing is that their remarkably unusual, utterly magical relationship exists at all, since it becomes the engine of this wholly narratively beautiful, visually sumptuous and soulfully-poetic film that underscores the fact that while humanity is too often defined by dark deeds and wicked impulses, it far more often shaped by its capacity for stricture-breaking love and a Carpe Diem lust for life and reality-bending possibility.