The trailers for this, the latest film by Guillermo del Toro, got a lot of his fans excited. For some, it looked like a return to the universe of Hellboy, featuring as it does an amphibious being with more than a passing resemblance to Abe Sapien. For others, it was a return to the aesthetically and emotionally strange worlds he had previously explored in El laberinto del fauno (Pan's Labyrinth) and El espinazo del Diablo (The Devil's Backbone), only this time in an English language film. For del Toro, however, it was a chance to finally make his own follow-up to The Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Del Toro was involved with Universal in early talks to direct a remake of Creature, but he insisted on a version of the film told largely from the Gill-man's perspective and wanted to see the heroine succeed in her romance with the monster. Universal weren't keen, and, well, you've seen the state of the Universal monster-verse. Perhaps they should have listened. This is the latest of many films that del Toro has made inspired by wonders and horrors from his childhood. However, unlike El laberinto and El espinazo, this is not an exploration of childhood fears but of adult concerns such as love, sex, allegiance and ambition. It's also one of his best and most beautiful films yet.
As with previous del Toro's films, The Shape of Water stars Doug Jones as its primary monster, following his roles as Abe in Hellboy and Hellboy II: The Golden Army, plus the Chamberlain and the Angel of Death in the latter; the faun and the Pale Man in El laberinto del fauno. Although the physical similarity to Abe is obvious, Hellboy's right hand fish is an especially verbose character. The Creature of The Shape of Water, shackled, wounded and mute, is more similar to the generally villainous characters for which Jones has portrayed through movement only (including the Pale Man, and the leader of the Gentlemen in Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Both visually and conceptually, the Creature here might be best described as the missing link between the bestial but passionate Gill-man and the cultured and magical Abe.
The true star of the film, though, is of course Sally Hawkins, who has rightfully been showered with praise for her performance as Elisa Esposito, the similarly mute cleaning woman who lives a life of subdued drudgery at the military facility in which the Creature is contained. While she communicates through sign language – a mix of ASL and BSL I am informed, and helpfully subtitled and/or interpreted for those of us who do not sign – some of the most illustrative moments in the film are without language whatsoever. Delicately directed moments explore a life that is unique yet ordinary: furtive masturbation during her morning bath, excitable moments of dance in front of the television, calmly eating her packed lunch between shifts. It's an achingly beautiful performance, with which Hawkins portrays a character trapped by her difference from those around her but surrounded by love, from her friends, neighbours and the mysterious Creature in the tank.
Which is not to say the rest of the cast are not given the chance to shine. The brilliant and under-appreciated Richard Jenkins plays Giles, Elisa's next-door neighbour and best friend, an ageing advertising artist who struggles to live a closeted life during the crushingly conservative America of 1962. Octavia Spencer is Zelda, Elisa's workmate and her closest confidante in the daylight hours, who serves as her voice in the workplace. While very different characters, they are linked in their clear love for Elisa, and by the marginal place they have in the society of the time. Indeed, it's a powerful statement to have the two main voices in the film – save the antagonist – be those of a gay man and a black woman.
That antagonist is Michael Shannon's Colonel Strickland, a loathsome creation and a pitch-perfect, pitch black portrayal of impotent white-man ambition. Strickland's desperate need to prove himself worthy to his superiors drives the film's plot, as he tortures the Creature and plans to tear him apart in a desperate attempt to learn something – anything – that he can present to his commanding officer to use in the fight against those damn dirty commies. He's thrown into sharp relief by his chief scientist Bob Hoffstetler – aka Dimitri Mosenkov – played with anguished heart by Michael Stuhlbarg. Again, making a Soviet spy one of the most heroic and sympathetic characters marks the film as a deliberate attack on the conservative right – a direct counter-narrative to the usual heroic square-jawed American point of view.
Indeed, this is the core of the film. As much as the story is about the plight of the outsider, the need to find someone to be alike and with, it's clear that del Toro really desperately wanted to follow up The Creature from the Black Lagoon (actually veering off partway through the sequel, Revenge of the Creature) by making it plainly clear once-and-for-all that the Western interlopers are the villains. Still, for all del Toro's sympathy for the original Gill-man, he was an aggressive being who tried to abduct the object of his desires. The Creature of Shape of the Water is an idealised version, capable of violence and clearly a wild animal, but far more intelligent, sensitive and compassionate.
Beautiful, strange, lyrical and sensual, The Shape of the Water is a remarkable film. Although the final twist is signposted clearly from the beginning, it nonetheless makes for a just and satisfying climax to a moving adventure.