FOR the last decade, Guillermo del Toro has focused on superheroes, Japanese robots and murderous siblings respectively.
For his latest project, he turns his attention to 1960s America in The Shape of Water, an adult fantasy headlined by a reliable cast including Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins and Michael Shannon.
At the height of the Cold War, a mute woman named Elisa Espostio (Hawkins) works as a janitor in a Baltimore government laboratory, communicating via sign language with the help of close colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer).
One day, the laboratory is sent a life-sized creature sealed in water whose origins are unknown, following which the colonel who found it in South America (Shannon) is stationed at the facility, intent on deciphering its meaning.
Unbeknownst to others, Elisa has discovered the creature and sensing a connection, gradually develops a close relationship with the creature.
However it soon becomes clear that the government agent has sinister plans for the creature, which contrast to the more considerate behaviour of the scientists. Sensing that her unlikely friend is in danger, Elisa sets out to free it with help from Zelda and her illustrator neighbour Giles (Jenkins) in spite of the risks faced.
It has been twelve years (if one sees Crimson Peak as just a gothic horror) since del Toro’s previous foray into adult fantasy, the much-praised Pan’s Labyrinth, so one cannot be blamed for having a high expectation given his success within this genre. The result is peppered with typical del Toro features; gradual discoveries, the battle between good and evil, non-human characters, grisly imagery.
The crossing of genres is apparent here with the film not just being restricted to fantasy. It appears at times as a drama focusing on social commentaries, notably when Giles observes the racist attitudes of a diner employer, as well as seeing his work rejected by advertisers likely due to his homosexuality.
There is also unexpected romance as the film progresses, the feel of an action thriller is apparent on several occasions and the film also takes advantage of its setting by often turning into a political drama with elements of espionage.
The ways in which the film includes these is an admirable effort at trying not to act as one straightforward fantasy piece and is arguably del Toro at his most versatile. In spite of that, it does make the film guilty of acting as a generic piece, which is acceptable but also makes one wish for something else, given the film’s opportunity to do something different with its premise, as the structure of the second half demonstrates.
Despite that, the film does manage to entertain for the vast part due largely to the characterisations that are depicted, notably that of Elisa. Hawkins is perfectly cast in a role which is a far cry to her Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky, here playing a mute who relies on her expressions to generate conviction, doing so without fail. Her finest moment arrives when she initially fails to persuade Giles to aid her with the creature, expressing fear, determination and defeat in affecting fashion.
Shannon adds more credibility to his expanding CV with his performance as the ruthless Strickland, who appears as a personification of someone living the American dream. This examination of this almost looks like an episode of Mad Men when introduced to this family man who appears to relish his achievement by purchasing a Cadillac, which is later involved in one of the scene’s most pleasing scenes.
Like Hawkins, Jenkins also conveys the loneliness of his character with his situation becoming increasingly hopeless in terms of professional and personal reasons, contributing to del Toro’s success at making this work as a multi-character strand.
Having already won the DGA award, it is almost a certainty that del Toro will take the Best Director Academy Award, a bit unfair on Christopher Nolan or even Martin McDonagh, not even nominated.
Whether it pips Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri given that film’s divisions to Best Picture is another question. It would be an improvement on last year’s Moonlight if so but would represent the Academy getting it wrong again just when they were nearing the point of redemption.
This is a likable film but not a classic to the point it does not deserve to be the 90th recipient of that award.