Director Guillermo Del Toro tends to be at his best when rooting fantasy horror in real-life horror.
The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth are genuinely beautiful pieces of cinema: films that respectively use ghosts and monsters to explore the physical and psychological impact of living under a repressive regimes (both are set during the Spanish Civil War).
Oscar front-runner The Shape of Water continues that trend, albeit without the same degree of profundity. Set in America at a time in which Cold War paranoia and the Civil Rights injustices of the early 1960s have created an oppressive atmosphere for those on the margins of society, it’s the story of a mute-since-childhood cleaner (Sally Hawkins) who falls for the amphibious humanoid (Doug Jones) being experimented upon at the underground research facility where she works.
Essentially a subversive homage to the B-movie ‘creature features’ of the era, the film doesn’t even try to pretend that the monster – found in a river in South America – is going to be the bad guy. The film makes clear early on that the true villain is the American military-industrial complex, personified here by Michael Shannon’s square-jawed all-American security agent.
But if the film hammers its political subtext a little too hard, Del Toro creates wonders in other ways. The evolving relationship between Hawkins’ Elisa and the be-gilled object of her affection is erotically charged in a way that monster movie love stories like Beauty and the Beast and King Kong rarely are.
She also has much more agency as a character than the heroines of those films, something seized upon by Hawkins, who’s brilliant in the role; her innately expressive features almost rendering the subtitling of her signed conversations irrelevant. Elisa’s friendship with her closeted, elderly gay neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins, playing a supporting character with the depth of a lead) is beautifully sketched out as well. They live above an old cinema and light from the projector seeps up through the cracks of their floorboards – a reminder that fantasy can seep into real life in positive ways, giving those shut out from the world the strength to be themselves, even in dark times. This is a monster movie made with real love.