Film Review: The Shape Of Water (2018)

A wonderfully weird story of star crossed lovers tackling heavy issues…

Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a magical mesh of genres, and I loved it. From the very beginning, as Sally Hawkins performed her morning rituals I was engrossed. The film is a modern fairy tale, set in early ‘60s America and all of the troubles that came with that place and time. Del Toro manages to deftly balance a maelstrom of contrasting issues with a touching central love story – between a mute cleaner and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Beyond the apparent bizarreness of this connection is the fact that neither character can speak; their love is conveyed to the audience through signs, body language and boiled egg offerings. The Shape of Water is a weird concept with real heart. It won’t be for everyone, but I have to say it is my favourite Del Toro film, and it is destined to be one of my favourites of the year.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is the mute cleaner, coasting through a rather dull life mopping up a top secret American base. She splits her time between best friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who complains about her silent husband, and gay neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), a downtrodden ad-man obsessed with the golden age of Hollywood. Enter Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon on particularly villainous form) and the creature (Doug Jones), captured from a South American river. The “asset”, as the creature is known, is locked away in the depths of the facility and tortured. Despite a penchant for finger eating, Elisa sees the humanity in the creature and they form a bond. Through their shared speechless bond, Elisa and the creature fall in love. It’s Beauty and the Beast versus Cold War paranoia, traversing issues of racism, homophobia, Red spies and more but never getting bogged down in one area. It is the strength of the strange love story which carries the film, shock isn’t used for its own sake here.

The Shape of Water is a film you just have to go with. If you accept the premise, then you’ll love it, because the premise isn’t there to take the plot in a wacky direction. The film is a bit over the top at times with it’s B movie gore but that’s testament to the films that Del Toro is both celebrating and mocking in equal measure. It further added to the whole otherworldly feel that permeates the film. The cinematography within the government facilities is dark, the set is full of radioactive greens and blues straight out of a Fallout game. There are aspects of noir, horror and other genres – Del Toro is a filmmaker obsessed with colour. Strickland’s family scenes are all washed out like the cinematography of the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davies. The film is very cineliterate, Del Toro explores his love for Hollywood history through Giles. Indeed, one scene between Elisa and the creature is a tribute to its golden age.

I’ve seen criticisms of The Shape of Water’s plot, that it is a bit predictable. Yet, in a way, the film subverts expectations by refusing to enter into utter ludicrousness. I derived my pleasure from the richness of the story, rather than plot twists. Taking the film in a ridiculous direction would have lessened my enjoyment of the film. In the past I’ve found Del Toro’s films overly weird to the detriment of the film (Pan’s Labyrinth), or simply they’ve chosen style over substance (Pacific Rim). The Shape of Water is a film made with real love for its source material, for its characters, for the message it’s trying to put across. A film in which a disabled woman, a black woman and a gay man take on the government in ‘60s America manages to be powerful without being preachy – this is a much better attack on the government than Spielberg’s The Post. There is no wonder then that it leads the Oscar nominations because it is as lovely film, a film that’s more gorgeous than weird.

Ewan Wood | [rating=4]

Drama, Fantasy | USA, 2017 | 15 | 14th February 2018 (UK) | Fox Searchlight | Dir.Gullermo Del Toro | Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Doug Jones, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer

Originally posted at Ewan’s blog