OldKingClancy posted a MOVIE REVIEW item: 16 days ago

The Shape of Water


Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Written by: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Genre: Adventure, Fantasy, Horror, Science-Fiction, Thriller, War
Official Site:
Plot: The Love Story Between A Woman And Her Fish


I feel bad for not checking out Del Toro’s earlier work, I’ve seen everything from Blade 2 onwards and while some are better than others he’s consistently proven himself to be a master of the Dark Fairytale and his influences from 50s monster movies are present throughout his work. With The Shape Of Water he’s made the most Del Toro movie since Pan’s Labyrinth by constructing a tender and emotional love story featuring beastiality and graphic violence.

And it’s currently front-runner for Best Picture.

Set in the 1960s with the Cold War at full heat, the film follows mute janitor Elisa Esposito working at a secret military laboratory, her only friends are her closeted neighbour Giles and black co-worker Zelda, both of whom being the only people to understand her sign language. Things change once Colonel Strickland brings in a new Asset to use in the Space Race against the soviets, the Asset is revealed to be an Amphibious Humanoid from South America that was worshipped as a God before his capture. Strickland wants to vivisect the creature and learn it’s unique breathing structure while scientist Robert Hoffstetler – in reality Russian Spy Dmitri – wants to study the Him alive.

While The Creature remains in captivity, Elisa forms a close bond with it, seeing a mutual soul in another unable to have the outside world understand it. Upon learning what is planned for Him, Elisa hatches a plan to break Him out of the lab and keep him safe until she can return him to the Ocean, but it’s in their time together in hiding that Elisa finds herself slowly but surely falling in love Him and wishing for a life together away from the pain of the world.

The heart of this story truly is a love story between Elisa and The Creature, this strange but tender connection between two people lost to the world and finding something in each other. Beyond that though Del Toro builds in a Governmental cover-up, a Russian spy-ring and a tale of loneliness and longing for those without a voice, and all of it fits honestly quite well together, you never feel like any of it is tacked on for the sake of the time period, rather each element has its part to play in building into the love story.

Acting was strong and tied into each of the film’s themes, both fantasy and violent. Michael Shannon did his intense and creepy thing as Strickland but he’s great at that so it worked. What made Strickland such a great villain was that, in his own way, he had an arc that made him so much worse as the film went on. At the start he was sadistic, controlled and casually bigoted making off-hand derogatory remarks to both Zelda and The Creature, but after losing two fingers and the resulting surgery to sew them back on resulting in severe pain and potential blood poisoning, he becomes more driven, more deranged and more animalistic as the film went on, even going so far as full blown torture and cold-blooded murder to secure The Asset.

Shannon’s Boardwalk co-star Michael Stuhlbarg (who had a hell of a 2017) plays Bob Hoffstetler or Dmitri depending on which side of the Cold War he was talking to. While the Russian spy angle doesn’t play into the film too heavily it does allow for Bob to be given a neutral ground to enhance his character, the Americans want the creature vivisected, the Russians want to killed to prevent any knowledge falling into the wrong hands and Bob is stuck between both wanting neither. In a film filled with evidence of loneliness and silence, having one man working against both sides to help save this remarkable creature is another showcase Del Toro bringing this solitary people together for a cause, Stuhlbarg makes the most of his dual role, never fully going into spy-mode but giving enough hints to his training to be wary of him.

Working into the same theme of solitary characters are Elisa’s only friends Zelda and Giles, played by Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins respectively, in a great twist of circumstance both act as the voice for Elisa when talking to others but being black and gay in the 60s neither had a voice of their own and so shared in her silence to the world. Both were solid in their roles though admittedly Spencer seemed to just be playing the same role she always does, maybe with a little more caution around Strickland and trying to keep Elisa out of trouble, but it’s Jenkins who comes out as one of the film’s best elements (pun not intended). Playing a closeted gay man in his twilight years, Giles has spent the last while of his life struggling as an advert artist for a company that just wants photographs, with no family to rely on him and only Elisa to call a friend his loneliness is one of the more palpable of the film’s, especially considering how long he tries to ignore it. Once he’s on-board with the plan his loyalty to Elisa carries them through and there’s an argument to be made that he’s realising just how important Elisa is to him as much as he is to her through their endeavour.

Elisa herself – played by Sally Hawkins in her trademark charm – is interesting for a main character in that she doesn’t speak a word, not unique but definitely a different twist for a love story. Obviously being mute Hawkins needed a lot of body language and facial expressions to convey Elisa’s feelings and she does that without an issue but what really stands out about her performance is how easily she makes it to root for her without words, only through her actions do we see just how determined, how caring and how strong she really is despite her disability. This is a strong role for Hawkins, I’m reminded of her turn in Paddington where she played into the themes of tolerance and love and it’s very similar here, just with more nudity and Creature Sex.

Played by Del Toro staple Doug Jones, The Creature is the second half of this love story and definitely the most Del Toro element of the whole thing. The look and design of The Creature is very reminiscent of Creature From The Black Lagoon though a lot friendlier and more human but knowing Del Toro that was intentional and plays into one of the aspects of the film, while Elisa saw a sentient and intelligent person behind the gills and the scales, he was still very much a creature. Whether it was his violent outbursts or his seeming mimicry and actions rather than his own cognitive ones, there were moments where the line between man and beasts were blurred but it made the film that much more interesting, had Jones played The Creature as intelligent and tortured it would’ve taken away from his character, instead keeping the bestial elements to him made the humanising moments for him stand out all the more as a result.

While I’ll give the edge to Pan’s Labyrinth for Most Del Toro Movie Ever Made, this is still absolutely his film, no-one else could devise a love story between a woman and her fish and make it work as well as Del Toro does, for all the sci-fi backbone that carries this story it holds a tenderness and true emotional centre that allows the film to showcase the relationship without feeling exploitative or even sickening due to the lack of human distinction in the creature. The central theme of being alone and different is felt throughout the film with the four leads being mute, gay, black and non-human in a time of political and social turmoil where being different was seen as being lesser or even dangerous, by keeping that running throughout the film we’re able to see the connection between Elisa and The Creature and want them to succeed in their romance.

Of course Del Toro keeps several horror influences including some graphic violence – what Strickland does to his own dead fingers in a climactic scene is one of the more disturbing scenes I’ve seen from him – but the influences Del Toro has here is less Universal Monster Movie and more – believe it or not – 40s musicals and romances. The production design and cinematography capture a very soft world, there are moments of harshness of course – dead cats and cattle-prods both have a part to play – but we see things through Elisa’s eyes and she has this optimistic view of the world that allows the happier moments to shine through, whether it be a little sofa-dance with Giles or a full-blown musical dream sequence reminiscent of the big ballroom showpieces of the 40s. As much as Del Toro has built himself as a director of fantasy and horror, this is the closest he’s come to being an artist and the joyous freedom he has designing this.

The Shape Of Water is the love story that we deserve right now, in a time where being different is cause for more pain than ever watching a woman without a voice fall in love for a merman without a home is exactly the kind of bizarre but tender romance we need to remind us that different does not mean dangerous. Hawkins, Jones and Jenkins all play into this world of emotional resonance and bestial violence but it’s Guillermo Del Toro who crafts every aspect of this movie and allows himself to paint the picture he’s been trying to for most of his career, the monster movie where the monster gets the girl. Few would’ve tried it, fewer still could’ve pulled it off, but in the right hands, this works in the most unlikely way imaginable.


Other reviews of this film: ReelSchool (9/10) > Display all

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