The Shape of Water review – a beautiful modern-day fairy tale

by | 14 Feb 2018

‘Elisa works at a secret government laboratory when one day a strange aquatic creature is brought in to be studied.’

The Shape of Water is another dark fairy tale by visionary film maker Guillermo del Toro. Like most of his previous movies, it showcases his love for the fantastical and otherworldly, celebrating the outcast, whether human or not who just don’t fit in with the rest of the world. It’s this style he excels at, and his latest is no different, showing us him at his best and most inhibited in doing what he loves.

Taking place in Baltimore during the early Sixties, the story follows Mute custodian Elisa (Sally Hawkins), who works in a secret government laboratory with her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Living a simple and lonely life, things get interesting when the despicable Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) turns up with a humanoid aquatic creature (del Toro regular Doug Jones). Beaten and tortured, Elisa slowly forms a bond with this gentle creature, and decides to help him escape with the help of her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins).

The Shape of Water is a wonderfully told story that feels both familiar with its tale of star-crossed lovers, but equally unique in its whimsical and almost magical tone. However, it also feels grounded due to the perfect setting of the Sixties, where tensions were high during The Cold War. This is shown in the film’s side plots of double agents and espionage involving Michael Stuhlbarg’s scientist. Actually, it’s the kind of combination del Toro is excellent at, taking the supernatural and putting it alongside the more dark and grim lives of our world. He already achieved this brilliantly with Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), which was also set in a bleak time during the Spanish Civil War, but had a fantasy element playing next to it.

Taking place in Baltimore during the early Sixties, the story follows Mute custodian Elisa (Sally Hawkins), who works in a secret government laboratory with her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Living a simple and lonely life, things get interesting when the despicable Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) turns up with a humanoid aquatic creature (del Toro regular Doug Jones). Beaten and tortured, Elisa slowly forms a bond with this gentle creature, and decides to help him escape with the help of her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins).

The Shape of Water is a wonderfully told story that feels both familiar with its tale of star-crossed lovers, but equally unique in its whimsical and almost magical tone. However, it also feels grounded due to the perfect setting of the Sixties, where tensions were high during The Cold War. This is shown in the film’s side plots of double agents and espionage involving Michael Stuhlbarg’s scientist. Actually, it’s the kind of combination del Toro is excellent at, taking the supernatural and putting it alongside the more dark and grim lives of our world. He already achieved this brilliantly with Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), which was also set in a bleak time during the Spanish Civil War, but had a fantasy element playing next to it.

Del Toro paces the story methodically, clearly having no interest in making an action-packed movie. Instead, what he presents is a character-driven drama about a fish-man and marginalised human forming a strong bond, despite them being different species. That slow pace then, will allow you to take in this touching story, and experience it in a very palpable way. French composer Alexandre Desplat’s alluring and delicate score likewise contributes to this love story that feels just outside the realm of reality, bringing memories of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie (2001), in which both films share a similar aesthetic.

It’s telling that del Toro makes the choice to have all three main protagonists as people who are on the fringe of society. Giles struggling with being gay in a highly prejudiced time, Zelda being treated like a second-class citizen as a African-American, and Elisa who is also looked down upon because she can’t speak. They all share something in common with this intelligent creature, who everyone else views as sub-human. Again, this is the director showing great love for the outsider.

Going with that thematically rich narrative, is also stunning visuals, which do just as much of the storytelling as the script. Indeed, this is a mesmerising movie to watch that has a very dream-like ambience about it, and every choice on how to present this tale feels deliberate and carefully thought-out.

Beautifully constructed with awesome production design, this is a world full of style and symbolism. So much so, you could probably watch this film on mute and still be able to follow what’s going on. Colour feels important as well, with certain spaces representing different things based on their palette. A lot of green is used for example, helping create that otherworldly atmosphere, and a murky and damp feel like being underwater.

Aiding all this are the well written characters, but also the fantastic acting by the cast who all succeed in bringing them to life. Hawkins is amazing as the lonely Eliza, bringing an emotional and powerful performance while never uttering a word. She’s able to display a range of emotions with just her face and body language, and she’s absolutely the heart of this film. Really, it says something about her acting abilities, that she’s able to play someone slowly falling in love with such an alien-looking creature, and still have it feel real and beautiful.

Speaking of which, Jones is great as the gentile amphibian, and as always, he brings a real physicality to the way he moves. In fact, it feels appropriate to have a tangible presence in this more grounded world instead of using CGI. The physical effects in bringing this monster to life are fantastic, and again, with no speaking dialogue, you’ll easily buy into his and Elisa’s connection. What’s more, both Jenkins and Octavia are excellent as Elisa friends, providing warmth, compassion, and a genuine affection between all these characters.

Shannon, on the other hand, is the complete opposite to the more progressive heroes, and represents the archaic ideals of the time. Rude, sexist and racist, he’s a nasty piece of work, who views the creature as an abomination. He’s an old-school antagonist with no redeemable quality, which Shannon is always good at doing. There’s an intensity he brings, making him a terrific and intimidating foil for the good guys to be up against.

The Shape of Water is not just a bold and modern day fairy tale, but it also has a story with a message that goes deeper than your average movie. Touching on themes of loneliness, lack of fulfilment and feeling incomplete, this is a movie that can be experienced on multiple levels. Combined with brilliant performances, especially from Hawkins, and spectacular visuals, why don’t you allow this unconventional love story to wash over you again and again.’

David Axcell

Film Critic

David has quite a broad taste in film which includes big budget blockbusters and small indie films; including International and Arthouse cinema. As long as it’s good in that particular genre, he’ll watch anything.

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