December 7, 2017

GENRE | Guillermo del Toro Swims into 'The Shape of Water'

"He sees me as I am."
Sally Hawkins Guillermo del Toro| The Shape of Water

I join host Scott Willson for Episode 151 of the Vertical Viewing Podcast (available on iTunes) to review The Shape of Water and other awards season films on this holiday edition of the show. (1h19)

Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro returns to his trademark brand of fantastical surrealist storytelling, in the vein of Pan's Labyrinth, for his 1960s Cold War era set tale of merman romance in The Shape of WaterSally Hawkins stars as Eliza, an orphan mute janitor at a top secret government research facility who is finally able to express her sensual passions and desires after she encounters an amphibious creature of the sea ("Amphibious Man") held in captivity to prevent Soviet extraction.

Hawkins is absolutely glowing and vibrant in her sweet role as a the repressed but upbeat worker bee. Her interactions with best friends, the sweet but frustrated neighbour Richard Jenkins and often ignored coworker Octavia Spencer, are splendidly heartfelt. The film uses its period setting and monster imagery to convey earnest portraits of adult friendships as most of the characters feel particularly lonely on their own.

It's never not a treat to see Michael Shannon on screen even when he plays a fairly stock villain character without many redeeming qualities. He's a pure antagonist as the torturer of the newly discovered creature. However, he's given ample backstory with a classic picturesque suburban family life as his frustrations and demeanour are fleshed out without ever over-explaining his menace.

Sally Hawkins Doug Jones Michael Stuhlbarg Guillermo del Toro| The Shape of Water

Contortionist Doug Jones as the towering amphibious fish-man hybrid creature (think Creature from the Black Lagoon) gives a truly affecting and physical performance full of wonder despite a harsh appearance. Actor Michael Stuhlbarg, once again the secret MVP of another film, as a scientist with conflicting motives and a passion for science emotes and ground much of the genre drama meets fairy tale story. Del Tero thoughtfully frames each of these white male characters with different but complementary aspects of American masculinity.

Despite the wholly charming nature of the film, the script by del Toro by Vanessa Taylor feels ever so thin and not nearly as magical or whimsical as other efforts. It's less imaginative and more historical in its town and structure. There are a few flights of fancy and slightly more surreal elements, but all the actors and characters are much more grounded in reality despite the paranoid presence and sense of magical realism throughout.

The Shape of Water is a classic del Toro tale of darkly adult themes expressed though tender, childlike imagery, moments of extreme violence, stylish design, and a healthy dose of social criticism. His continued use of supernatural creatures to portray ideals of love and sympathy are chillingly beautiful. What's most welcome and refreshing is how old fashioned yet straightforward the story is. Aside from the appearance of a merman, there's only so much that's surreal about the sweet period love story.

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