When we talk about visionary directors, imaginations don’t come more vivid than that of Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, known for concocting weird and wonderful dark fantasy fables. His latest effort is 60s romantic drama The Shape of Water, which follows mute cleaner Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) who works with her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) at an underground government laboratory. When their boss Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings a mysterious sea-creature to the facility to be held in captivity for scientific research, Elisa and the amphibian form an unorthodox relationship.
There is so much to unravel from this idea-packed narrative. It’s a heartfelt homage to classic Hollywood where the silent star is dropped into a fantastical Soviet thriller that has subplots of both homosexual suppression and racial oppression. The bizarre combination of elements shouldn’t work as well as it does, but del Toro creates a compelling yet challenging world to explore the sinister themes. In a story of societal outcasts that is overflowing with ambition, the strong friendships and the eccentric central romance carry a lot of weight against the neglectful, narrowminded environment.
Without saying a word, Sally Hawkins is superb in the leading role. There’s a great balance of comedy and tragedy to the character, and it’s a wonderfully emotive performance that relies purely on measured expression. She enjoys tender on-screen relationships with Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins who play her co-worker and neighbour respectively. Continuing a fantastic run that sees him in three of the Oscar Best Picture nominated movies this year, Michael Stuhlbarg is in scene-stealing form as a lab scientist whose complexities reveal themselves as the plot thickens. Rounding off a stunning cast is the ever-excellent Michael Shannon, portraying a repugnant allegory of all that is wrong with both del Toro’s mythical sphere and the world we live in.
The Shape of Water is a madcap tale of lonely souls and an impeccably crafted celebration of cinema, implementing striking influences without compromising the director’s strange singular style. Telling a small-scale intimate fairy-tale with expansive far-reaching motifs, del Toro adds idiosyncratic warmth to his wacky version of the Cold War, and though his protagonist cannot speak, his cinematic voice is as loud and relevant as ever.