Review: The Shape of Water (2018)

Guillermo del Toro’s beautiful, brutal and brilliant romantic fantasy fairytale is a classic.

Did you hear the one about the girl? The one pure of heart in a world less so? The one who found out that love can be as murky as the deepest depths of a lake? What can I say about her? What can I say about the film that stole my heart?

Director Guillermo del Toro is a director whose work not only leaves one in admiration but often leaves you speechless and at a loss for what words to use to do the craft justice. The Devil’s Backbone, Hellboy II: The Golden Army and (what is called) his greatest magnum opus Pans Labyrinth, these are but some of his accomplishments across a striking career. Now, with The Shape of Water, a beautiful, savage and mesmerising fairytale, del Toro reveals to us perhaps his most intimate motion picture yet, as Creature From the Black Lagoon waltzes with Beauty and the Beast resulting in a future classic.

Naturally, the above media friendly, movie-referencing, quote does not tell the whole story of this film but it does describe but one layer of a feature that left me submerged in a chamber of emotion afterwards. Set in the early 1960s, Sally Hawkins plays Elise, a mute woman who works at a government facility and laboratory as a janitor. Her life is a cycle, the reprieves of which come in the form of her friendships with her stressed neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her supportive workmate Zelda (Octavia Spencer). One day however, the cycle of life radically alters with the arrival of an “asset” at the lab but Elise will soon find that in this creature (played by Doug Jones) is a connection she has never known.

The Shape of Water oddly reminded me at points of Tim Burton’s Batman Returns and Edward Scissorhands, in its presentation of the outcasts of society and how the division between monstrosity and heroism is a line that is not always so certain. For his whole career del Toro has chosen to associate himself with those that can be ignored or isolated by our often cold world but in this feature he delves into the inner beauty of those most isolated, subjugated and tortured. He feels not only for the “monster” but also for those who are equally as cast aside and deemed inferior to god’s image. The Shape of Water showcases precisely why the director is a master of monsters onscreen, because he sees who the real monsters truly are and in this fiercely relevant, moving, magical and bizarre romantic fantasy, his ‘60s set story has much to say about humanity’s modern ideals and our desertion/destruction of that which is different.

Over the course of this film’s story, I felt a strong connection to the powerful tale being told and was swept away by its strange and spectacular presentation. In the film, Elise and Giles live in flats above a classic but struggling cinema and it is one of many qualities that expresses the movie’s love of the poetry of cinema. A black and white musical sequence elsewhere and Giles and Elise’s viewing of golden era musicals also add to this adoration of the medium, as del Toro wraps his ferocious and distinct romantic fable in a scaly coat of big screen grace. It is a work of the most visually striking kind, with moments of abhorrent cruelty, thematic resonance and – especially in one sequence – heart-quickening excitement.

Some may not be able to look past the core bestial traits: the mistreatment of the creature, an unfortunate feline fracas (why Guillermo why?!), the notion of fish meets girl and a gnarly finger issue to name but a few but in this fantasy masterclass, no act of violence (and there are some strong lashings) is a shock tactic and no idea is a pretentious ego massage. Everything in The Shape of Water serves a purpose, as the screenplay swims to the depths of the human heart and soul to reveal the best among us…and the worst, with the latter sadly being awarded with the most power (or are they?). There is so much to take in from this beautifully directed, written and constructed film that you pay as much attention to the narrative, as you do Dan Laustsen’s magnificent cinematography or Alexandre Desplat’s quite sensational score.

That said, through all my bordering on gooey-eyed love of what this film is, I have not mentioned one of the most remarkable things about the film, its cast. The Shape of Water has an ensemble of so many good performances that each of them is worthy of note. Sally Hawkins, in the practically wordless lead part, is unbelievable. This physical and impressive turn sees Hawkins replace dialogue with expressive mannerisms to heartbreaking and moving effect. As she is mirrored by a fantastic Doug Jones who, beneath dazzling make-up, also heightens his physicality in the part and adds further levels of connection with his onscreen companion, as these two silent souls grasp us with their unique kinship.

The supporting turns are also exemplary and very well written, with Michael Shannon offering a blistering turn as the righteous and unpleasant Colonel Richard Strickland. Richard Jenkins is likewise awesome, with a memorable turn as Giles that is humourous, warm and touching when addressing his fears of his sexuality and age. While Octavia Spencer gives Zelda a rebellious fire and a crackling wit making her another lovable part of this film and, come the climax, a force to be reckoned with. Michael Stuhlbarg also plays a fine part and adds so much to a particular sub-plot that furthers the films core ideologies and anchors the period setting.

Forgive my wordy rambling but I for one cannot recommend del Toro’s latest enough. Perhaps it will not be for everyone but then again can any film ever earn that distinction (with the possible exception of Paddington 2)? The Shape of Water can be summarised as visionary or as a meaningful fairytale for audiences of its and our own era but most of all it is a film made with feeling and that makes all the difference, both to the creators and to the viewers. A magical, moving, memorable, masterpiece.

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