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A period of high national tension would not seem like the ideal background for a fantasy film, and yet writer-director Guillermo del Toro has pulled off the trick twice. In what’s still his best film, Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro weaves a dark fairy tale about a girl who discovers a fantasy world just beyond the home where she and her sick mother have moved to in the years after the Spanish Civil War. Now, in The Shape of Water, a film that comes very close to being just as good as his 2006 masterpiece, del Toro once again depicts a fantastical story against the backdrop of growing tensions between America and the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
Pan’s Labyrinth is essentially telling two stories: that of the period after the Spanish Civil War and how a tyrannical military leader is hunting down rebels to the reign of Francisco Franco, and that of the tyrant’s stepdaughter Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her journey into a fantastical heart of darkness, led by a mysterious faun. Del Toro is able to balance the intense and visceral real-world side of the story, in which Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez) cruelly treats all rebels as something to destroy, with the tasks Ofelia must complete to potentially gain immortality. The ways in which the two sides dovetail, culminating in a heartbreaking finale that allows for ambiguity about how much of the fantastical side of the film “happened,” made Pan’s Labyrinth feel uniquely remarkable.
Admittedly, there are a few elements of The Shape of Water that may be recognizable to fans of del Toro’s 2006 film. In the new film, set in Baltimore in the early 1960s, the government figure in charge is the unnerving and confrontational Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), and his maniacal behaviors are driven by a mysterious Amphibious Man that he captured in South America and brought back for scientific experimentation. Strickland’s career is on the line for this discovery, so when the Amphibious Man makes an emotional connection to one of the cleaning women at the government facility, the mute Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), Strickland becomes convinced that something underhanded is occurring that he must root out. And before the climax, Strickland faces off with one of the facility’s scientists (Michael Stuhlbarg) in a scene that indulges in some body horror reminiscent of a face-off in Pan’s Labyrinth that ends with Vidal receiving a serious wound in the cheek.
But the core romance of The Shape of Water goes beyond any of the fantasy relationships in Pan’s Labyrinth. If, perhaps, Ofelia was a mute adult, and was in love with the faun who guides her through her three challenges, it might be more recognizable. What is unavoidable is the rising tension in Elisa’s romance with the Amphibious Man that she might be found out, either by the establishment figures looking to experiment on the hybrid creature or by Russian spies who want to take the Amphibious Man for their own nefarious purposes. Elisa’s desire to dive headlong into the outrageous romance with the Amphibious Man does mirror Ofelia’s willingness to escape the darkness of her real life, with her ill mother on one hand and a nasty stepfather on the other, though the cruelty of the world seems to impact Elisa less even before she meets her new paramour.
One of the great benefits of The Shape of Water is not only its wonderful cast — Richard Jenkins plays Elisa’s kind, if overly nervous, neighbor, and Octavia Spencer plays her closest friend at work — but how del Toro and co-screenwriter Vanessa Taylor afford the entire cast a sense of place and a past. The early scenes in which Spencer’s chatty co-worker talks incessantly about her husband do indeed have an unexpected payoff, just as the subplot featuring Jenkins’ character trying to regain an old graphic-design job ties into the general commentary within the film regarding prejudice. As in Pan’s Labyrinth, there’s a welcome sense of depth to the characters inhabiting this world, not just a protagonist and antagonist.
What makes Guillermo del Toro’s films often so remarkable is the sense that only he could have told these stories. Many genre filmmakers, successful or not, may not be as capable at translating their passions into a full story, but now del Toro has done it more than once. Though The Shape of Water and Pan’s Labyrinth share creative DNA, the former has scenes that are so singular, and yet so weirdly apt, to this story that it’s hard to imagine literally any other person making a story so tender, visceral, and intense. Though it does not quite surpass his 2006 classic, The Shape of Water proves to be one of del Toro’s most personal films, another case of the director successfully using real-world, high-tension conflicts as the setting for one of his unique fables.
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The Green Knight