- Phenomenal style – sound and visuals bring this vivid world to life
- Beautifully shot
- Thematically rich
- Wonderful performances, particularly by Sally Hawkins
- An instant classic; one that will improve with every watch
Guillermo del Toro isn’t a new discovery to audiences by any means; an expert and renounced filmmaker, he already has a few masterpieces under his belt (such as Pan’s Labyrinth) along with a few blockbusters (like Hellboy or Pacific Rim). Now he’s back with his first film since Crimson Peak in 2015…and it’s wonderful. A modern retelling of a classic Beauty and the Beast-esque tale, The Shape of Water is an instant classic, a fairytale film with a dreamlike quality about love, humanity and so much more.
Set in the early 1960s with the Cold War and Russian threat at the forefront of every American’s mind, we follow Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a sweet but mute girl, only able to communicate via sign language, and her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) who both work cleaning a secret underground lab at night. Life is normal until emotionally-deranged, pill/candy-popping government agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) turns up with a tank containing a mysterious figure. Curious, Elisa sneaks in and meets the figure, a monstrous, yet oddly beautiful, Amphibian Man (Doug Jones), with whom, like with everyone, she can only communicate via sign language. Feeling a connection with him, Elisa and the creature quickly develops a strong bond. Though claimed as one of the world’s greatest discoveries and once worshipped as a God, Strickland intends to finish his cruel experiments, planning to kill and dissect the creature. Upon discovering this, Elisa devises a plan with neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) to save him. But they’re not the only one with plans for the creature, because Russian spy Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) also has his own orders and ideas.
The first thing to notice in this film is the style, one that Del Toro absolutely commits to and makes exceptional. It’s a beautifully romanticised view of the 1960s, with a wonderful soundtrack and exquisite set design. Imagine Bioshock with a love story. From sound to visuals, the style is unique and breathtaking, absolutely sucking you into a dreamlike world absolutely fit for a ‘fairytale’ such as this. Even monotonous parts of Sally’s life are shot beautifully and Del Toro proves to us once again what he’s capable of directing.
However it’s still Del Toro and anyone who’s seen one of his films, from Pan’s Labyrinth to Crimson Peak, knows that he has a penchant for the weird and wacky. In this case, weird and wacky has never been so beautiful and emotional. Straddling themes of love, politics and what is is to be human, this is a film that will no doubt be studied and loved for years to come, improving with every viewing.
Taking just the story and the way it’s filmed alone, it’s a wonderful film; but the cast make it that much more magical. Michael Shannon often plays the bad guy, but there’s a reason for this typecast – he’s perfect as it. He doesn’t necessarily need to shout; with just a look and a mumble, he crafts an intimidating, unpredictable character that poses as an ominous threat throughout. Octavia Spencer is another one typecast, often playing a sassy lady who’s prejudiced against (in this case by Shannon’s character, believing himself to be God and everyone else, Spencer’s character specifically, to be below him), yet she effortlessly excels in this role and is the perfect friend to Elisa. On the other side is Elisa’s other friend, Giles. His friendly, but timid character grounds a film with so much craziness and lends some much needed comic relief; sweet and lovely as the film maybe, it’s not a light, easy-going comedy. Zelda and Giles are the perfect friends for Elisa, one being black, the other gay, they understand her struggle as a mute and not being able to fit in with a prejudiced world. This is a struggle personified further in the Amphibian Man, animated wonderfully with terrifyingly realistic gills and colourful scales. Straddling the boundary between animal and man, Doug Jones’ physical performance really sells the character and the theme it represents. The real star of the cast, however, is Sally Hawkins. With next to no lines at all, Hawkins’ performance is stand out. We fall in love with her without her needing to say a word, similarly to the Amphibian Man. It’s this similarity which really brings them together, but it’s her performance which stands out the most. With every emotion and thought showing on her face, we feel strongly for this character, sympathising her with every step. Never quite given a chance to shine before, it’s wonderful to see what Hawkins can do, able to command such screen presence without a voice and able to show her character’s struggle vividly.
Shape of Water is an incredible, beautiful and sweet film that will touch the hearts of moviegoers worldwide. A cautionary tale with a plethora of themes and messages that anyone can identify with, this will be a beloved classic, loved more and more with every re-watch. A magical, fairytale that deserves each of its 13 Oscar nominations. It may not win them all, but it certainly deserves the recognition and praise. A masterpiece and an instant classic.