If the magic of film lies in its potential for transporting viewers to vividly imagined, previously unseen worlds, then Mexican writer-director Guillermo del Toro surely ranks among cinema’s foremost magicians — but you wouldn’t know it from a brief sampling of his work.
For much of his career, del Toro has focused on horror-fantasy (The Devil’s Backbone) and brooding superhero stories (Hellboy) that appeal mainly to fans of those genres, occasionally veering into more mainstream fare such as sci-fi action movie Pacific Rim. But all his films feature immersive settings and moments of visual splendor that leave no doubt about del Toro’s gifts.
When storytelling and emotional content match the visuals in a del Toro film, you’ve got something truly special, such as the director’s dark-fantasy masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth, a winner of three Academy Awards and a film beloved by cinephiles of every stripe.
Eleven years later, Del Toro’s impossible-to-classify The Shape of Water feels like the long-awaited follow-up to that film. It’s a melancholic fairy tale aimed exclusively at adults, a modern update of the monster movies many of us (including del Toro) loved in our youth and one of the most unlikely love stories ever committed to film. The director has called it his “dream project” and every frame bears that out. It may fall short of the artistic heights reached by Pan’s Labyrinth, but The Shape of Water easily finds a place among the year’s most unique and visionary films.
Set in a mid-sized coastal city in 1962, del Toro’s film tells the story of a mute woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) who works as a janitor at a top-secret government research facility. An “asset” soon arrives on site — an amphibious, humanlike creature captured in a South American jungle by Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who runs the facility and would like to put his asset on the dissection table. Sally lives quietly, watching old movies with her neighbor and best friend Giles (Richard Jenkins) and silently commiserating with chatty work partner Zelda (Octavia Spencer), but she soon forms a nonverbal bond with the keenly intelligent and mysterious fish-man.
Like many of Guillermo’s films, The Shape of Water inhabits a world that’s recognizable yet unbound by the realities of daily life. Its occasional flights of fancy — a romance-inspired ballet of raindrops on a bus window, or the film’s sudden transformation to a black-and-white, 1940s Hollywood musical — are kept surprisingly brief, which keeps the story moving and seems intended to ward off audience-limiting art-film status.
Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky) digs deep to find the soulful Elisa in a performance destined for end-of-year awards. A veteran of six del Toro films in which he often plays fantastic nonhuman creatures, former contortionist Doug Jones brings a brooding, expressive presence to the bioluminescent creature, making his relationship with Elisa seem plausible — even natural — in the context of the film.
The form-fitting mechanical suit used to bring the fish-man to life on screen was nine months in the making and constitutes an authentic work of art. It’s as if the star of 1950s horror classic Creature from the Black Lagoon escaped the Amazon and received a high-tech makeover before sharing his new tale of exploitation and woe.
The loneliness and isolation of the creature reflects across The Shape of Water’s entire set of characters. Del Toro’s unseen world may be a sad one not too far from our own, but hope and redemption lie in wait where a chance at human connection remains.
The Shape of Water opens next Friday, Dec. 22, at the Broad, Canal Place and Elmwood theaters.