The Shape of Water (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer

Certificate: 15
Run Time: 123 mins

The Shape of Water is the latest film by director Guillermo Del Toro, whose films at worst, are ambitious and thoughtful and at best, masterpieces. Del Toro is one of the most visionary directors working today, who consistently explores the supernatural and his films are full of beautifully realised monsters. Pan’s Labyrinth is his magnum-opus, a Spanish adult fairy tale set to the backdrop of the Spanish civil war and The Devil’s Backbone is not too far behind. I really liked his work on both Hellboy films, particularly the second which is a brilliant alternative superhero film and I’ve got a soft spot for Crimson Peak, which recieved a very mixed reception on its release. Naturally, I was very excited for The Shape of Water, particularly considering the Awards attention that it has recieved for a filmmaker who is often, sadly underappreciated.

The Shape of Water tells the story of a mute cleaner, Elisa (Sally Hawkins) who works at a top security government facility who falls in love with a mysterious amphibian-like creature with human qualities. This is set to the backdrop of the Cold War which means there are uneasy relations within this facility between its staff and some are suspicious that there could be spies working there.

The Shape of Water is a beautiful triumph from Del Toro, who once again successfully interweaves and juxtaposes the supernatural to reality. Del Toro has clearly been inspired from The Creature from the Black Lagoon, a film that he wanted to remake from a female perspective but wasn’t allowed. As well as this inspiration, Del Toro’s film is a love letter to early cinema which it borrows in some of its tropes and plot points, infused with his darker work on Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. I was hooked by the film throughout and it has a lot hidden up its sleeve and like his other films, it earns its adult rating with its sex and grotesque violence.

The performances in the film are all top-notch. Sally Hawkins is wonderful as Elisa, who manages to convey all of her emotions through her physicality in the role and her relationship with the creature is very convincing. Richard Jenkins is great as her homosexual illustrator neighbour, an individual who shares a strong bond with Hawkins. There is a brilliant sequence mid-way through the film where Jenkins’ character tries to introduce himself to someone who he admires, which Del Toro cleverly interweaves the historical context of the time. Octavia Spencer is also ever-likeable as Hawkins’ work colleague, who effectively does the talking for the both of them.

All three of these actors have been nominated for their performances in this film but I think the standouts are actually Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg and Doug Jones. Michael Shannon is superb as the antagonistic Colonel, who will stop at nothing to get what he wants, a character who is icily cold and brutal. Stuhlbarg has a particularly meaty role as a Doctor, which he is very convincing as a scientist investigating the creature. Doug Jones as the creature is brilliant, again a character that relies on physicality with Jones having to spend long bouts in a full prosthetic body suit. In combination with Andy Serkis in his motion capture roles, it’s high time that roles and performances such as Jones’ recieve recognition.

Alexandre Desplat’s score is beautiful and hypnotic, really complimenting the film well. Desplat balances his score with endlessly memorable cues, as well as being a nostalgia trip into early cinema and music. Dan Laustsen’s cinematography is excellent too and the film is a visual treat to behold, Doug Jones’ creature in particular painstakingly wonderfully realised.

The film isn’t quite perfect though. The relationship between Elisa and the creature feels a little rushed and I think the film would have been slightly better if it had taken its time a little more in the beginning to fully set the scene. There is also a sex scene between two characters mid-way in the film that is a little silly and unbelievable, but is important to the film’s narrative. Finally, I don’t think Del Toro has quite managed to weave in the film’s Cold War backdrop as assuredly as he did with the Spanish Civil War in Pan’s Labyrinth. It wasn’t evident at the beginning of the film that this is what he was trying to do and I think a little more development there would have helped.

These are all minor points in what is otherwise a wonderful film and The Shape of Water is certainly Del Toro’s best English-language film, closely followed by Crimson Peak. The Shape of Water is an engrossing and enrapturing experience, that shouldn’t be missed on the big screen and fully deserves all the Awards praise it is getting.The only downside, not of the film but of this Awards attention, is that the other half of the cast should have been nominated for their performances, not Richard Jenkins. Despite this, The Shape of Water is a masterful exercise in visual and narrative storytelling and is a film that on further viewing, will reveal itself even more with regards to a couple of plot points.  I cannot wait to watch it again.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

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