An awe-inspiring tale of love and affection, The Shape of Water exhibits masterful storytelling, intriguing themes and stellar performances. Guillermo del Toro's best in a decade.
The master of the modern-day creature feature and in possession of one of the most creative and artistically abstract minds in Hollywood, Guillermo del Toro is a name that gets people talking. Regardless of what the project may be, del Toro’s name always attracts attention and sets anticipation at a certain standard. With The Shape of Water, del Toro returns to the simpler approach utilised in his beloved Pan’s Labyrinth: a simple premise, intriguing characters, a thematically rich setting and some truly stunning filmmaking.
Against the backdrop of 1962 America, during the height of the Cold War, mute janitor Elisa (Sally Hawkins) works at a top-secret government research facility where, along with her colleague and friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), she discovers a classified experiment, a creature referred to only as “The Asset” (Doug Jones). What really sets The Shape of Water apart from other such films is the approach it takes to this fantastical premise and the deft melding of several sub-genres; part fantasy, part thriller, part romance, The Shape of Water is a glorious combination of elements, balanced perfectly. The script is vital to its success and del Toro crafts an absorbing tale; it thrills, entertains and engrosses in equal measure.
Whilst the story and script itself are sublime, the characters are what really succeed to the highest degree. Del Toro gives them all ample development and sets out their motivations and arcs clearly, as much as he is a natural storyteller, he knows how to grant his audience a passage into his work, the film would not work as well as it does without such richly drawn characters. But given the brilliance of these characters, rousing performances are required and are fortunately delivered. Sally Hawkins weighs in with a commanding lead performance, Elisa is a character who experiences a story packed with emotion across a vast scale and Hawkins delivers without even being allowed to say a word. This is a detailed and very specific performance from the actress, it relies significantly on her facial expressions and simple mannerisms but Hawkins is in total control throughout. Octavia Spencer delivers a typically warm and charming Octavia Spencer performance, it fits perfectly for the character of Zelda alongside the isolated Elisa as one of her only true friends. In equal measure, Richard Jenkins shines as Elisa’s neighbour and friend Giles, like Spencer he provides the film with much of its warmth, charm and humour. In opposition to them as Colonel Strickland is Michael Shannon, a terrifying and menacing tour-de-force performance from the character actor who can chalk up another sterling performance on his resume.
The themes at play are equally as enthralling. With the Cold War backdrop, del Toro has a vast strategy board with which to play; themes of technology and its advancements, political suspicions and tensions, social prejudices against homosexuality and people of colour, and the American dream are present. Like Pan’s Labyrinth before it, del Toro fully utilises and actualises his backdrop. On a more personal and intimate scale, the themes of loneliness and acceptance help to further these fantastic characters and tie into the grander scheme of the movie brilliantly. The optimism and wonder of the film’s fantastical elements are meshed seamlessly with the harshness of reality and the darkness of humanity. The Shape of Water is an all-encompassing masterpiece.
Add in typically stunning cinematography and a wonderful score from Alexandre Desplat, The Shape of Water is vintage Guillermo del Toro. The film is a true joy to behold, a master at work exhibiting a firm grasp of all that makes movies special. In every department, The Shape of Water amazes and devastates, it is a true cinematic triumph.
The Shape of Water (2017), directed by Guillermo del Toro, is showing as part of the 2017 BFI London Film Festival, further information can be found here.