Review: The Shape of Water

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Mesmerising

A truly unique tale brought to life through masterful direction and faultless performances that will stay with you for much longer than the film's two-hour run time.

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Each year there are one or two films that everyone talks about in relation to some sort of seemingly unbeatable awards season record – you’ve only got to look back 12 months to the unforgettable success of last year’s La La Land to find an example. This year is no exception, with Guillermo del Toro’s latest spectacle, The Shape of Water, leading the way for the 90th Academy Awards with an almost record-equalling 13 nominations. Following a recent triumph at the Director’s Guild Awards (often a good indicator for who will be taking home the big awards come the Oscar’s in March), The Shape of Water reaches UK shores with high expectations.

To those familiar with Pan’s Labyrinth (undoubtedly Del Toro’s most appreciated work), The Shape of Water will immediately feel like familiar territory through its fantastical 20th Century setting. Central to the narrative is Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute and isolated janitor who works night shifts at a suspicious research facility along with her colleague and friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). She discovers and subsequently forms a special relationship with a top secret ‘asset’ – an unusual amphibious creature (Doug Jones) held captive by the senior researchers. Matters get complicated when these very researchers set out to eliminate the creature; the stakes, romance and violence on display in the film intensify as a result.

If anyone can immerse an audience in such an unusual story, it’s Guillermo del Toro. As far as plots go, The Shape of Water doesn’t exactly follow a quantifiable series of events, yet we are immediately plunged into this dark and twisted society with such grace that we never once question the unusual romance that unfolds. It’s not just about the innocence and beauty of the relations that occur (although it would still be superb if it was) but about what it means to be human, and Del Toro continually pushes the boundaries of filmmaking to force us to continually question these ideas.

Although The Shape of Water is first and foremost a showcase of directorial mastery, there is no doubt that it would not be such an effective or moving tale without its stellar cast. Sally Hawkins manages to make what is perhaps the hardest role of her career to date look effortless – her lack of literal voice does not stop her from commanding the screen at every opportunity. The supporting cast do their utmost to match her performance and do so with success. Michael Shannon plays villain Richard Strickland with great conviction – his character is impossible not to hate but his performance is also impossible not to applaud. Richard Jenkins is fully deserving of his Best Supporting Actor role as Giles (Elisa’s kind-hearted neighbour) – although it would have perhaps been nice to see even more of his character, the moments he is given are moments of pure brilliance. The main surprise, however, is Michael Stuhlbarg. His role as a secret Soviet spy is subtle, but Stuhlbarg conveys this character in the expert manner we’ve come to expect from this actor following his incredibly moving performance in Call Me by Your Name late last year – he is the real unsung hero of the film.

The images blissfully pass by with help from Alexandre Desplat’s soft, lullaby-like score and the film subsequently plays out like a series of meticulously planned, symphonic sequences – Del Toro has mastered the art of creating an immersive fairy-tale in a dream-like landscape. Overwhelming at times, but never overbearing, there is absolutely no doubt that The Shape of Water is a poetic directorial masterpiece that will only grow in meaning and acclaim as time passes – an example of cinema in its most refined and unique form.

The Shape of Water (2018), directed by Guillermo del Toro, is distributed in the UK by Fox Searchlight Pictures, certificate 15.

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Second year film student. Probably watching something to do with Ryan Gosling, Pixar or science-fiction.

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