There are a wide variety of courtship techniques in human history. Sending romantic love letters, going to the local dance, or exchanging cheeky glances at the opportune moment. Tantalising your desired mate with hard-boiled eggs is a less conventional, but, according to The Shape of Water, apparently effective method.
It’s 1960s Cold War Baltimore, and mute janitor Elisa (Sally Hawkins) carries out her mundane job in a mysterious government facility. But the arrival of a new specimen initiates a budding and intense affection unlike any other. Part of this intriguing relationship, aside from the eggs, is its speechless development. It’s refreshing not to have a showy, dialogue-heavy discourse of love, but rather just to see it grow silently and naturally through the simple art of the facial expression.
Sally Hawkins provides one of her best performances. Known for less central roles in films such as Submarine and the Paddington movies, Hawkins shines as a generous, inquisitive and determined figure who will go to any lengths to protect her humanoid amphibian lover. Have you ever wanted to know how to sign the phrase “fuck you” in a particularly sardonic manner to your enemy? Well, now’s your opportunity to learn.
If the trailer and its music created the sense of a straightforward, classic film love story, then I can assure you that it never follows such an expected structure. Guillermo del Toro wears these early twentieth century romantic influences on this sleeve, but provides more than enough of his characteristic fairytale darkness to mix things up. If you’re not a fan of tame, passive romances, then don’t worry, there’s plenty of gore to keep you entertained. Should you be squeamish on the topic of fingers, then maybe look away at certain points. Just like Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water benefits from a combination of whimsical fantasy and graphic moments of violence.
But don’t use that excuse to miss out on del Toro’s latest triumph, which marks his finest work since Pan’s Labyrinth. Dan Lausten’s cinematography imbues the film with a subtle, understated beauty. The main set-piece may be a drab government facility, but that doesn’t stop Lausten from creating a brilliant atmosphere of simplicity with Elisa’s daily life, contrasted against the more fantastical sequences with the monster (Doug Jones). Incidentally, if you haven’t seen this guy’s other impressive and more vocal work as the Kelpien Saru in Star Trek Discovery, then I recommend you do so. And of course, Jones is also the humanoid amphibious Abe in del Toro’s Hellboy series. Richard Jenkins gives an impressive performance as Elisa’s reserved neighbour Giles, and Michael Shannon adds another villainous role to his acting canon. If you weren’t sure what kind of character he’d be playing, then the ominous strings that play during his introduction should provide a strong indicator.
If you’re looking for a less conventional romantic film following a fruitless Valentine’s day, then dive into this outstanding work and travel somewhere beyond the sea.