A thoroughly enchanting and engrossing fantasy romance from the master of such things, Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water represents another high watermark (no pun intended) for the celebrated filmmaker. In contrast to his period pieces (the Oscar-winning Pan's Labyrinth; The Devil's Backbone) and more outwardly fantastical ventures (Hellboy; Pacific Rim; Crimson Peak), this takes a relatively more grounded, contemporary approach to its story, albeit one that's juiced up with plenty of del Toro's familiar touches. Set in 1960s Cold War America the movie focuses on a sensational Sally Hawkins as mute janitor Elisa who works at a clandestine government lab alongside Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Whilst there she bonds with a top secret 'asset' brought in for testing: an amphibious, humanoid water-dweller brought in from the Amazon and overseen by the brutish Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon).
The shared loneliness between Elisa (who, significantly, lives above a cinema showing re-runs of Biblical epics) and the asset soon blossoms into an inter-species romance but the beast's survival is complicated by Strickland's desire to eliminate the creature, out of fear it will fall into Russian hands. The latter is represented by Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who poses as a scientist at the lab when he is in fact a Soviet agent. It falls to Elisa, Zelda and the former's closeted artistic neighbour Giles (a superb Richard Jenkins) to contrive a plan...
If del Toro's previous movies have been criticised for demonstrating style over substance, The Shape of Water is the ultimate rebuttal to that claim. Visually magnificent it is (the opening underwater tracking shot really is the stuff of dreams) and of course del Toro indulges in his love for genre cinema with the likes of the Creature from the Black Lagoon featuring strongly. Yet it's arguably his funniest and most humane movie to date with every single character richly resonating in their own way. Then there's the sublime score from Alexandre Desplat, a key component for how it draws the audience into the director's water-logged, wondrous world.
It's the first collaboration between del Toro and Desplat, the former initially favouring Marco Beltrami on Mimic and Hellboy before moving through the likes of Javier Navarette, Danny Elfman, Ramin Djawadi and Fernando Velazquez on his subsequent movies. In truth Desplat's highly symmetrical, precise style, in which every individual note is calibrated for maximum impact, meshes beautifully with del Toro's fine-tuned visual aesthetic. Just as del Toro is rarely one to fill a frame with a redundant detail, so too does Desplat balance that sense of economy and beauty in his music.
The results are, predictably, superb. Desplat has more than proved his suitability for large-scale fantasy pictures on the likes of Harry Potter, Rise of Guardians, Godzilla and this year's Valerian, although The Shape of Water largely hews to a far more whimsical, melancholy tone than those efforts. It's all centred around the gentle sound of the bandoneon (Argentinian tango accordion), which carries us along right from the very start of overrarching love theme, 'The Shape of Water'. After picking up a whistled accompaniment representing Elisa's character it eventually floats off on a bed of 12 flutes that mirror the undulating flow of water itself. This particular theme is the bedrock of the score, a typically gorgeous Desplat piece resonating with all the longing and pathos inherent in the story.
The piece receives several heartstopping iterations including 'The Silence of Love'; the heavenly 'Underwater Kiss' with its solo violin bridge and steady piano; the swooningly romantic 'Overflow of Love'; and the climactic, sumptuous 'A Princess Without a Voice'. Desplat's ability to both stay true to his core musical conceits whilst developing them in profound ways really does earmark him as a remarkable composer and, sad as it is to say, pinpoints him as one of the old school who prioritise theme, melody, colour and compositional intelligence above mindless noise.
Derivative of this is 'Elisa's Theme', one that extrapolates various instrumental textures from the main theme and develops them separately. From its piping woodwinds to the ever-present accordion and harp undercurrent, it adopts the main theme in slightly sprightlier fashion, indicating Elisa's vibrant inner life that resonates even in the absence of a voice. It weaves its way through the likes of 'Elisa and Zelda', 'Egg', the somewhat more hesitant, glockenspiel-led 'That Isn't Good', 'Decency' and the resounding 'Watching Ruth' where the string section rises in conjunction with the bandoneon to glorious effect.
Separate to this is the ominous, brooding material representing the story's espionage undercurrents. Interestingly Desplat opted not to invest Michael Shannon's brilliantly vicious performance with a villain's theme out of fear it would prove too distracting. Instead, he utilises bass woodwinds, percussion and strings at the lower end of their registers to indicate the wider context of Cold War America, primarily embodied by Nick Searcy's relatively more sympathetic Colonel who wants the creature analysed for scientific research.
'The Creature', 'Spy Meeting' and the impressively swirling 'Five Stars General' (echoes of The Ghost Writer) fall very much into this bracket. The score's standout cue is possibly the extraordinary 'The Escape', a 10-minute powerhouse of steadily escalating suspense that gathers all the components of the wider symphony orchestra for a nerve-shredding assault that stands with the greatest of Desplat's action achievements.
As the score works towards its dramatic conclusion the sense of orchestral violence increases in the likes of 'He's Coming for You' and 'Rainy Day' whose turbulent textures are all the more shattering via contrast with the earlier, more romantic material. Thankfully it all rights itself with the utterly lovely closing song 'You'll Never Know', performed by with characteristic grace by soprano vocalist Renee Fleming in her second collaboration with Desplat after Rise of the Guardians. Translating the central love theme into a gorgeous ballad it's the perfect way to end the score, before the album rounds up with a series of period-specific pop hits from the likes of Glenn Miller and Carmen Miranda.
It's a little disheartening to observe that so many contemporary film composers are competent musicians but substandard storytellers. The ability to write music is one thing; the ability to write music that equates to, and deepens, the narrative of the film in question is what separates the truly great film composers from the rest. On this basis there is no denying Desplat's standing as one of the great musical storytellers of our age, someone who invests so much of his own personality in every new score and who also works with filmmakers on a forensic level of detail to get to the heart of their movie.
The Shape of Water demonstrates all that is wonderful about Desplat's music: it's instrumentally diverse, narratively appropriate, romantic, terrifying, exciting and otherwordly. It both serves the movie and also stands on its own as a rich listening experience. This is a complex movie and demands a composer who sees more than just the surface sheen, who is capable of delving into its philosophical undercurrents. There's no denying that del Toro has found the perfect composer to do justice to his lustrous vision, and there's no denying that The Shape of Water is one of Desplat's finest achievements.