‘The Shape of Water’ Review by Alex Straker

Rating: [rating=5]
Release date: OUT NOW on DVD/Blu-Ray, Digital Download

The latest offering from the visionary Guillermo del Toro is an enthralling period fantasy and an ode to tolerance, set in a 1960s America where a mysterious sea creature is discovered – but it’s the people who are the real monsters.

The Shape of Water has been something of a sensation since its initial release, an awards darling that charmed the Academy (it claimed the Best Picture gong at this year’s Oscars, amongst a saddlebag of other accolades) and audiences alike.

The film is set in Baltimore, 1962, and follows Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a woman employed as a cleaner in a government facility. It’s there that she first encounters the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones), a sentient aquatic being that is held in captivity by the sadistic government officer Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). As Strickland’s plans for his new ‘specimen’ become ever more sinister, Elisa finds herself transformed by her deepening connection with the Amphibian Man – a bond that sets her off on a new and unexpected course.

In many ways, The Shape of Water is the spiritual sequel to Del Toro’s 2006 masterwork Pan’s Labyrinth. As with this earlier film, Del Toro (and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor) employ all the familiar tropes of a fairy tale, from the ‘once upon a time’-type period setting to moments of romance, whimsy and wish fulfilment to keep the audience satisfied. But the result is much more than simple escapism – Water is unafraid of depicting moments of real violence and constant peril, often with a dash of dark humour for good measure. The result is a film that is more than the sum of its parts, a distinctly modern, adult fairytale that respects its audience enough to tackle topics like sex, loneliness and obsession with the same seriousness as the supernatural.

But the beating heart of the film is undoubtedly the pairing of Sally Hawkins’ Elisa and Doug Jones’ Amphibian Man, a largely silent but entirely believable connection between two outsiders in a world that often tries to police their difference. Elisa is a fittingly defiant and resourceful heroine (she gets props for the best use of an egg timer in a movie, ever), whose bonds with Octavia Spencer’s Zelda delivers some of the best laugh out loud moments in the film. Similarly, her tender connection with Richard Jenkins’ Giles is all the more memorable because it’s so understated. Longtime Del Toro collaborator Jones (currently starring in TV’s Star Trek: Discovery) is perfect as the mysterious creature that wins her affections. Despite copious layers of makeup and prosthetics, he imbues the Amphibian Man with a real sense of wonder and humanity, making him fascinating to watch.

For a film centred around a strong, mysterious being held in a secret facility, it’s striking that the real monster is Shannon’s Richard Strickland, a wolf in Mad Men-style clothing who takes as much pleasure in terrorising his staff as he does the Amphibian Man. It could have felt very one note after a while, saved by the subtlety of Shannon’s performance and his ability to present Strickland as a man with layers – a tyrant of many faces, in other words.

All these characters converge in a classic Del Toro climax full of shocks, surprises, and heart-stopping moments, without outstaying its welcome. Water is by no means a bedtime story, but it’s rewarding and thought-provoking viewing with real substance mixed into the spectacle. Its characters and the complex world they inhabit will surely stay with you long after its closing moments.

The Blu-Ray DVD offers a number of entertaining featurettes including interviews, discussions of design and artwork as well as a glimpse into the making of the film’s Oscar-winning score.

Alex Straker | [rating=5]

Drama, Fantasy | USA, 2017 | 15 | 25th June 2018 (UK Blu-ray) | Fox Searchlight | Dir.Gullermo Del Toro | Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Doug Jones, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer