The Shape of Water Review
Beauty and the Creature from the Black Lagoon
It’s a tale as old as time… the cleaner falls in love with a magical fish-man. Guillermo del Toro returns to form with this underwater love story for the ages.In recent years, Hollywood has been accused of churning out the same old story, rehashed and rebooted. Hollywood has also been accused of an output that lacks heart, that lacks character. The Shape of Water changes everything, and is the best film Guillermo del Toro has made since Pan’s Labyrinth. In some ways, it’s a very different film to that masterpiece. This film is set in 1960s Baltimore, with the leading lady this time a mute woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins). Instead of violent Spanish warlords, we have shady American agents; instead of an magical forbidden forest, we have a classified water tank.
And yet The Shape of Water shares many of Pan’s Labyrinth’s best qualities. Both are stories in which women find themselves in the presence of magic, at the same time as hardship. Del Toro’s strength has always been the fantastical, and you don’t get much more fantastical than a love story between a woman and a fish-man hybrid. Elisa’s carefully measured routine is bowled over when shifty government agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) arrives at the lab Elisa cleans with an unbelievable cargo in tow – an apparently human-esque creature (Doug Jones) found in the depths of South America.
And what a time for a discovery like this – it’s the 60s, after all, and America is besieged with Cold War paranoia. Strickland wants his marine man studied, biopsied and exploited as a potential weapon of mass destruction. Countering him is Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who points out that a discovery of this magnitude should be studied and preserved.
It’s amongst this fraught atmosphere that Elisa meets our aquatic creature. Enchanted, rather than horrified, she gradually falls in love with him, as she forges a deeper connection than any she’s had with another (human) person. Elisa can’t speak audibly, so she communicates with the creature by motions, body language and actions. They’re almost equals in this way, and it lends this improbable love story a strangely believable quality. Was Elisa the typical female love story lead, this would be a completely ridiculous film. But The Shape of Water gives her vulnerability, a unique character and the ability to innately understand the creature.
It’s here, somewhat unexpectedly, that the film shines. In spite of the sci-fi/fantasy elements, it’s the portrayal of bare, basic humanity that’s the most brilliant. As battles over his future rage on outside, the sea creature learns the delights of a boiled egg with Elisa. Even beyond the tank, Elisa’s human friends bring incredible character and heart to the film; her neighbour, Giles (Richard Jenkins) is a reclusive artist battling his own demons, while her friend and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) is a charming, chatty counterpart.
It’s whimsical and wacky and weird and wonderful. It’s del Toro at his absolute best
As it’s a fairytale, we have a narrator, and we also have a fairly heavy-handed narrative. Del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor could certainly be accused of slapping it on a little thick – there’s nothing subtle about The Shape of Water, and it’s by turns opaque and saccharine. But you can’t deny – it’s a breath-taking feat, to frame a fairytale with the Cold War, and then actually make it a love story between a human woman and a phantasmagorical sea-dweller.
Of course, the implication here is that the monster isn’t the real monster. There’s nothing subtle about this, nor the faintly confusing reveal that Giles is gay, mid-way through the film. Lots of the film could be described as childlike – from the haunting score by Alexandre Desplat to the wondrous fantasy of it all, and the rather simplistic notion of love.
But those complaints are no match for the visual splendour and emotional might of The Shape of Water. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen translates del Toro’s unique vision to the screen with rich colours, evocative tones and gorgeous clarity. This, combined with an utterly beautiful performance from Hawkins, makes for a completely unique cinematic experience.
It’s very weird – but then, it’s a love story about a magical marine creature. But it’s also del Toro’s masterpiece, and it’s got a delightful lead performance, a compelling ensemble and achingly beautiful cinematography. Trust me, you’ll want to sea this.
Our Review Ethos
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.