Referred to elsewhere as Grinding Nemo (although I’d also accept 50 Shoals Of Grey, Brine And A Half Weeks or Basic Fin-stinct), Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape Of Water is quite possibly the greatest adult fairy tale to grace cinemas since the Mexican filmmaker’s own Pan’s Labyrinth. Upset as a child that the monster didn’t originally get the girl, Del Toro essentially plucked the Gill-Man out of Creature From The Black Lagoon and dropped him into a love story where he’s finally the romantic lead – it’s an audacious concept that only the Mexican auteur could pull off and his long, successful history of dealing with monstrously beautiful outsiders managed to bag him a Best Picture Oscar.
But despite all these accolades, was the world really ready for a story about a healthy, physical relationship between a woman getting her thrills from a dude with gills? If anyone could pull it off (so to speak), it would be Del Toro.
Elisa Esposito is a mute cleaner in a secret government laboratory located in Baltimore and every day she goes about her business in the dingy, cavernous facility being virtually ignored by everybody except her best friend and work colleague, Zelda and her secretly gay neighbour, Giles. However, one day a captured specimen is brought in under the bulging eye of super-tense Colonal Richard Strickland, who is taking things extremely seriously due to it being 1962 and with the Cold War in full swing. The specimen is some sort of amphibian man found in a South American river and after a chance meeting, Elisa bonds with the fellow outsider and a budding – if unconventional – romance starts to bubble to the surface.
Pressured by the urge to further his career (plus, having his finger bitten off by the creature surely didn’t help) Strickland schedules the Amphibian Man for vivisection, but thanks to the efforts of a valiant Elisa, an undercover Russian spy and her two friends, the fishy fella is broken out of the facility and stashed away in Elisa’s bath tub while they wait for the heat to die down before they release their scaley friend into the reservoir.
However, Elisa’s relationship with the Amphibian Man goes to the next level (if you know what I mean) and its also revealed that the creature has healing properties, making him like a sexually active E.T., but being away from his natural habitat is starting to take a toll on the being and worse still, Strickland’s paranoia is going rapidly off the scale.
Now utterly besotted with her exotic Koi toy, can Elisa manage to smuggle him out before he expires, or worse yet, captured again?
The greatest feat Del Toro pulls off in this modern masterpiece is that the tone of this film is so expertly judged, at no point do you actually question the nature of this particular brand of guppy love. From the initial reaction, to the growing feelings, to the leads finally going all the way and giving into their aquatic lust, you accept this romantic connection between a woman and a fish-man as almost the most natural thing in the world. In fact, the scene where Elise describes to Zelda how the Amphibian Man’s penis works is so forthright with the intention to make this coupling as normal and down-to-earth as in-humanly possible. It’s due to a script that’s refreshingly free of cynisim (fairy tales and cynicism don’t usually go that well together) and combats any similarity with the piscene passion seen between Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah in Splash by leaning into Sally Hawkins’ genuinely mesmerizing performance. Physically slight and constantly looking like she’s just found out her cat has died, Hawkins’ wordless portrayal of Eliza doesn’t pin her down as some shy, shrinking violet because of her disability. She is defiant, mature, confident and sexually active, making her feelings toward the creature utterly her own choice and completely understandable in a way that’s truly heartwarming. Appearing opposite her encased in layers of prosthetics and animatronic as the Amphibian Man is suit performer extraordinaire and Del Toro regular Doug Jones, who turns in yet another thoughtful, sensitive performance in a role that could also be seen as either as the aforementioned Gill-Man cast as Cary Grant with fins or an overly ambitious origin story for Hellboy’s Abe Sapien… Either way, every head tilt and every blink is carefully measured and his look even hints at his leading man status as his gills resemble the ornate collars of a well-to-do gentleman as his bio-luminesece make him impossible not to stare at in wonder.
The non-gilled support is also very strong, Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins are Eliza’s few true friends and are both wonderful while Michael Shannon turns his bug-eyed glare up to 11 as Strickland’s sanity decays as the same rate as his injured fingers go worryingly necrotic.
Another nod has to go to the truly awe-inspiring set design; almost everything is soaked in teals and other watery greens and the period detail is achingly lush and bewitchingly hypnotic.
If the subject matter isn’t too weird for you (and if it is, then surely you haven’t been paying attention), The Shape Of Water is a lush, intelligent and smartly lean tale of forbidden love between lonely outsiders that’ll make your heart float as the sublime visuals take control. With such scenes as the submerged bathroom or the musical number stirring your soul, you can’t help but feel that this is the movie that Del Toro’s entire career has been leading toward up to this moment – Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, Crimson Peak, yes, even Mimic. Be it either technical or emotional, everything in the auteur’s back catalogue has seems to have lead him here and it’s a genuine thrill to consider where the tide will sweep him next.
And you know what they say: once you go fin, you never give in.