Director Guillermo del Toro showed himself a master of dark fantasy from his very first feature film “Cronos”. His early works in Spanish include the mystical “Pan’s Labyrinth” and the chilling ghost story “The Devil’s Backbone”. He then carried that same imagination into the mainstream action genre with the “Hellboy” movies and as a writer on the “Hobbit” trilogy.
His latest, “The Shape of Water”, is a cold war Beauty and the Beast fairy tale. Set in the early sixties at the height of American paranoia about communism and drawing on the popular movie genres of the period, it is a monster movie with the “creature from the Black Lagoon” or in this case the Amazon jungle as the hero, while also being a thriller and most of all a love story.
Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a cleaner in a top secret government laboratory, where a mysterious amphibious creature is being held captive and subject to cruel experiments and potential dissection by Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) as a possible asset in the space race against Russia. Elisa befriends the creature, who possesses the ability to absorb and replicate the emotional state of whoever he comes in contract with. So he responds with anger and aggression to Hoffstetler and also to an unfortunate cat who later crosses his path but to Elsa’s kindness he responds with love and an unusual romance develops between them. The story then becomes a thriller, as Elisa with the help of her neighbour, retired artist Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) hatches a plot to rescue the creature. With not only Hoffstetler on their tail but also the Russian secret service, who want to get their hands on the creature as well, things do not look good for the unlikely lovers.
In creating his fantasy sixties world Del Toro melds together not only elements of the monster movie and the B movie thriller but also the musical through the films that Giles and Elisa watch together and a charming fantasy sequence involving Elisa and the creature in a pastiche “Fred and Ginger” song and dance number.
The cast respond to the director’s vision magnificently. Hawkins gives the gentle but resourceful Elisa not only an innocent sensuality but an instinctive wisdom and there is good support from Jenkins as the warm and eccentric Giles, Spencer as the down to earth and protective Zelda and Shannon, embodying the unacceptable face of America. While playing one of the most unusual romantic male leads in film history is the brilliant mime artist Doug Jones, a stalwart of several of del Toro’s films.
Despite the fact that it has some violent and upsetting moment, the film is charming, touching and essentially gentle. A beautiful, captivating and magical film with an essential humanity at its heart and an implicit moral – be kind to all sentient creatures, human and otherwise.