Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Doug Jones, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer & Michael Stuhlberg
Runtime: 123 mins
Guillermo del Toro has got an interesting way of grounding superbly supernatural, fantasy worlds and creatures by placing their stories in the middle of key historical events. It was what worked so well for him in the 2006 dark fantasy thriller, Pan’s Labyrinth, where the mythical creatures and creepy fairy tale-like world acts as an escape for the protagonist from the grim reality of the Spanish Civil War. The Shape of Water centres around Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaning lady working at a top secret research facility in the 1960’s, right in the middle of the Cold War. When a strange, fish-like creature arrives in the facility to be used against the Soviets in some way, Elisa becomes fascinated by him, and over time they form quite a unique relationship.
Del Toro’s incredible cinematic voice tells this one-of-a-kind story in a way that no one else could. While the film is distinctly adult in many of its themes, it clings onto the childlike essence of traditional fairy tales which make it such an endearing story. The film is weird and wonderful, perfectly mixing the soft romance of the 1940s style production, with the tension of a Cold War thriller.
Del Toro’s masterpiece is an explosion of the senses – from visually striking colours and scene composition to an incredibly charming and apt soundtrack. The film is unique and magical from start to finish. While it would not be a Guillermo del Toro picture without being a little whacky, but he is so on point when it comes to grounding the weirdness and making it feel believable, while still maintaining the incredible aura of fantasy. The story is simple but effective, with the plot revealing itself so slowly you almost never fully understand the context of what is going on, but frankly you are so mesmerised by the film’s charm and beauty, that it doesn’t even matter all that much.
Sally Hawkins is mesmerising as the leading lady. It is no easy feat to act without a voice, and her charming, innocent, often playful portrayal of Elisa contributes so much to the success of the story. You feel her isolation at the start, you rejoice when she finds comfort in the Amphibian Man, and even though the relationship should be uncomfortably strange, you cannot help but support it and love it. She captures the role perfectly, with powerful displays of emotion using only her face and body language to convey it. Her relationship with Giles (Richard Jenkins) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer) are equally delightful, and you feel the good in this character’s heart from start to finish. Michael Shannon is on point as the film’s main antagonist, Strickland.
What starts off as a dark yet whimsical character quickly turns incredibly sinister as Strickland becomes more and more invested in both Elisa and in the fate of the Amphibious Man. Shannon’s performance is terrifying, adding a level of conflict to the film that transforms it from adult fairy tale to dark fantasy thriller and, as wonderful as the love story is, giving it that much needed edge to avoid becoming too elementary. An honourable mention must go to Richard Jenkins, who played Elisa’s neighbour, the wonderfully good-natured and understanding Giles. He was a delight, adding humour and loveliness to almost every scene he was in. And of course, Doug Jones, known for playing both Fauno and the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth, and numerous other non-human roles, does what he does best as the Amphibian Man, creating an endearing and fascinating character that you cannot get enough of.
The Shape of Water is a wonderful example of Guillermo del Toro’s amazing skill as both a filmmaker and a storyteller. It so successfully captures the essence of exactly what it is trying to convey, doubling as a mystical fairy tale and a Cold War thriller. Sally Hawkins’ innocent, childlike Elisa is contrasted sharply and excellently with Michael Shannon’s creepy and sinister Strickland. The overall design of the film is truly mesmerising, from the onscreen colour palette to the beautiful design of the Amphibian Man. It was a film unlike any other I’ve ever seen, and even though del Toro’s cinematic voice is heard loud and clear throughout, it is still vastly different than his previous endeavours. A real winner for me, and without a doubt my current frontrunner to scoop the coveted Best Picture award at next month’s Academy Awards.
Ciara Dillon – Film Editor