There was a time when I used to watch most if not all of the Oscar nominated films well before the awards. This year, the 90th Academy Awards is being held the night before my 30th birthday (aka the reason I’m watching so many films from 1988 this year), which, thanks to my colleagues, I am reliably informed is a mere 27 days away. The only film I’d watched up until this point was Dunkirk, which you may remember I reviewed back in August out of spite. I figured it was about time I do something about this so set about watching as many of the movies nominated for ‘Best Film’ this year. 9 films in 27 days? Along with everything else I have to do? I’m going to be honest, I probably won’t manage it but I’ll give it a damn good try. Who needs sleep anyway? I know that everyone has been jizzing all over Call Me by Your Name recently but, as good as I think it might be, I find it hard to believe it genuinely was the best film of last year. So, instead, I decided to start with the film that I was most excited about. Also, the weirdest looking film in the whole bunch but what do you expect from someone like Guillermo del Toro?
His latest tale is set in the 1960s and centres around the life of a mute cleaner, Elisa, played by Sally Hawkins. She and her co-worker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), are part of the janitorial staff at a secret government research facility in Baltimore. Aside from Zelda, Elisa only has one other friend in her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins). Giles, a secret homosexual, has recently been let go from his advertising agency and is desperate to prove his skills as an illustrator in order to get his job back. The pair find comfort in each other and indulge in a mutual love of classic cinema. Elisa has a strict routine she follows every day until Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings a mysterious discover into the lab.
Inside a strange tank the scientists are hiding a strange underwater sea creature who has a tendency to bite off digits when annoyed. The government want to study the creature to find out if it has advantages for their technology but Elisa starts to bond with it. With neither being able to verbally communicate with each other, the pair spend their time in silence sharing a lunch of boiled eggs and listening to records. When she finds out what Strickland’s plan is, Elisa enlists the help of her friends and an undercover Russian scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg) to help hide the creature in her apartment. She and the creature fall deeper in love as Elisa waits for perfect time to free him forever.
The Shape of Water is a really odd film and one that, upon hearing the synopsis may leave you feeling a bit weird. It’s like a mash-up of a B movie with a romantic comedy. Imagine a version of Creature from the Black Lagoon where Julia Adams ends up staying in Gill-man’s lair instead of being rescued. That’s essentially where Guillermo Del Toro got his inspiration from and, in a way that only he probably could, he manages to make it work. Despite all the misgivings I may have about a love story between a mute woman and a dangerous sea creature, The Shape of Water ends up being an incredibly touching and emotional story. Yes, you can’t escape the feeling of unease about the whole thing but it is played out with such tenderness that you can’t help wanting love to win out in the end.
And that is something that mostly comes about thanks to the marvellous performance of Sally Hawkins in the lead role. Though she doesn’t have a lot to say, Elisa is a strong and intelligent woman. She sees the creature from the eyes of an outsider that nobody really understands and manages to see that reflected back at her. He is a misunderstood being who is not able to verbally acknowledge who he really is. Hawkins drives the emotional story along and ends up making quite the pair with former contortionist, Doug Jones. Jones, who has been a frequent collaborator with Del Toro, has as difficult a job as Hawkins to sell this romance but his turn as the creature is astounding. It is so easy to see why this creature would love Elisa and how much he cares for her.
The Shape of Water is the kind of film that nobody but Del Toro could even have contemplated making. He has made an incredibly beautiful and touching story that is always one beat away from becoming a horror story. Everything about this film is perfect and it comes together to be something truly remarkable. It won’t necessarily leave you feeling as satisfied, warm and fuzzy as a normal rom-com but this is the kind of film that will never leave you. It is so much more than your average ‘girl meets monster, girl falls in love with monster, girl rescues monster from the government and has sex with it’ story. It is about trust, difference and finding our place in the world. And it’s sensational.