He’s a wild creature. We can’t ask him to be anything else.
Romantic films come in many shapes and sizes. Whether you’re looking for a schmaltzy love-at-first-sight fairy tale, a story of mismatched personalities finding the common ground or, as has been the case more recently, a cheap trashy tie-in to a series of books about two people beating the shit out of each other both physically and emotionally.
Occasionally, though, a film will slip through the cracks of cliche and come out the other end beaming bright and making people like me actually start to think, “Huh. Maybe I do like romantic stories after all.”
One such film is The Shape Of Water (2017). Finally released in the UK today, on Valentine’s Day, The Shape Of Water is the passion project of Guillermo del Toro, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay along with Vanessa Taylor. Take five minutes to read up on the making of this film and you’ll be quick to spot that this guy was absolutely in love with this project, even going so far as to state that if the film had flopped, he would give up on directing altogether.
You can be sure, then, that del Toro will be directing for a long, long time to come.
So What Happens?
Set in Baltimore in 1962, the height of the Cold War, The Shape Of Water tells the story of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins). Found as a child with a set of scars on her neck, Elisa is mute and able to communicate through sign language – which is understood only by her closest friends and confidants. One of her friends is Giles (Richard Jenkins), a frustrated illustrator living next door. Seemingly dependant on Elisa’s kindness for his survival, he happily entertains her with his art and his fondness for musical theatre.
To pay her bills, Elisa works as a cleaner in a top secret government facility alongside her other friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), an African-American woman who appears to spend her days monologuing about how terrible her husband is.
One day, while cleaning out one of the labs, a mysterious tank containing some extremely murky green water is wheeled inside. Described as the “most sensitive asset ever to be housed in this facility,” the tank comes with its own personal bodyguard – Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Never one for shying away from a curiosity, Elisa takes a closer look – and is disturbed to find something big lying just below the water level.
Later, Zelda and Elisa are pulled away from their lunch to clean up a terrible mess inside the same lab. Apparently a confrontation between Strickland and The Asset left Strickland pretty badly injured, with blood pooling throughout the lab. While Zelda bemoans the state of the place, Elisa pries closer, and discovers that the mysterious asset is, in fact, a humanoid fish creature, known from now as the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones).
Intrigued, Elisa begins to visit the lab in secret. Apparently without fear, she establishes a connection with the creature, at first feeding him hard boiled eggs, then playing him music in the dead of night. She earns his trust, and the pair clearly hold a strong connection before long.
Unaware of what’s going on, Strickland otherwise maintains a tight ship. With the arrival of General Frank Hoyt (Nick Searcy) to the base, priorities take an immediate shift. Desperate for an advantage over the Russians, General Hoyt orders that the creature be vivisected and studied, much to the dismay of one scientist in particular, Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg). Elisa, having overheard this, panics, and begins to draw in her allies to try and break the creature free before it is too late.
As Elisa struggles to convince her friends to rescue the creature, it becomes abundantly clear that there is a lot more going on than a simple humane act. Each character has their own demons to face, their roles in society questioned and resisted as Elisa begs for the freedom of her… beloved.
Yes. This is a film about love. Fish love. Human-Fish love. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to say that Elisa is able to convince her peers to help her break Amphibian Man loose. Keeping him safe in her bath tub, the emotional bond grows ever stronger. Elisa, an outcast her entire life, finds solace in Amphibian Man. He does not judge her for what she lacks, but for what she is. While there was always a bond, this soon becomes more. Much more.
But while Strickland pursues those that stole the asset away from him, other forces at play have their own demands. Political intrigue, Cold War drama, social analysis and just plain old love all weave together in The Shape Of Water, leading to a fairly epic showdown that not only leaves you entertained, but utterly enthralled.
The real majesty of this film is exactly this. Del Toro has always been known as a very visual director, but The Shape Of Water is just so ethereal, it’s hard to really put a pin in what makes it so wonderful to watch. The performances are absolutely spot on, with Michael Shannon and Sally Hawkins positively filling the screen with charisma. The music by Alexandre Desplat, too, plays a huge part in selling the sentimentality we’re witnessing on screen. While the story is set in Baltimore, the atmosphere and tone could easily place the story in Paris – further adding to the romantic themes throughout the story.
It goes without saying that Doug Jones’ physical performance as the Amphibian Man is as perfect as you could expect, with the costume and effects presenting a comfortably alien-looking creature without losing any of the human qualities that Elisa sees so clearly. It’s no secret that del Toro based much of the story and look on classics such as Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954), but, unlike some alleged similarities with certain other media, this felt less like a rip-off and more a total love letter to the classic monster serials.
In short, then. This film is a masterpiece. Visually stunning, tonally perfect and emotionally like slipping under a warm, scaly blanket that smells a little bit like that swamp you used to hang around in after school.
Furthermore, if you ever enjoyed the Bioshock series of video games, you will immediately feel at home here.
Watch it. Take your partner. Take your friend’s partner. This is the Valentine’s Day movie you can’t afford to miss.
Yours, A P Tyler