An aquatic fairy tale
The film begins underwater in a bohemian, scarce apartment in a neon-lit city. It has been flooded with emerald coloured water, and this is when we meet our protagonist, played by Sally Hawkins, sleeping soundly, undisturbed by the water as the opening credits roll. As the water drains away, the film begins.
Almost immediately the film’s jaw-dropping visual effects are introduced, which are maintained immaculately throughout the film, as well as the constant theme of water, which seeps through every shot of the film.
Directed by the acclaimed and wonderfully eccentric Guillermo del Toro, it is impossible to imagine The Shape of Water to have been directed by anyone else; it would have been too vulgar, too uncomfortable, or simply too hard to believe. However, in classic del Toro flourish, he manages to blend the lines between reality and fantasy. The scaled, underwater creature (Doug Jones)- whom the protagonist Elisa falls in love with- is the monstrous outsider, feared and hated by those who don’t attempt to understand him.
The politics of the film are tangible; del Toro, a Mexican director, has created a crass, dogmatic and psychotic military general as the sole antagonist, played by Michael Shannon. He is a nightmarish vision of a military-minded world, favouring power over humanity, and could be easily compared to a certain American president. It is no mistake that the protagonists of the film are a mute woman, a gay man and a black woman.
Negative reviews or interpretations are not unfounded, however, as the film is far from perfect. At times the film feels too saccharine, especially when compared to some of del Toro’s earlier films, which are much darker, and rooted in realism, despite fantastical themes; compare the ending of The Shape of Water to the final scenes of Pan’s Labyrinth, for example. Is it unfair to compare his earlier films to The Shape of Water? Perhaps- but fans of del Toro will recognise fragments of his cinematic instincts in this film.