REVIEW: The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, 2017)

We’re officially in Oscars territory now. The Shape of Water is a deeply affecting and emotional film which draws its inspiration from Horror film, 1930’s musicals, Cold War spy flicks and the monsters of early Japanese cinema. The monsters of this film, however, are not scaly but are the suited, tie wearing men of the US Government whose cruelty is excused by their authority. But this is also a love story, with several isolated characters searching for a connection in the dark, gloomy city.

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Guillermo del Toro’s first film as Director in four years sees his brand of Gothic Horror brought to a 1950’s America which is full of secrets and loneliness. One such lost soul finds and falls in love with another – a familiar story so far, except that one of these characters is an ancient Lizard-man (Doug Jones) who has been captured and imprisoned in a government lab by Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon). The other is Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute who works as a cleaner in the lab and is drawn to the tortured prisoner. Eliza communicates through sign language with her friendly colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and fantasises about signing in the musicals she watches with her neighbour, Giles (Richard Jenkins).

The Shape of Water is crammed with arresting visuals and themes which work brilliantly in the chosen setting. The cinematography gives the film a dreamy, underwater quality which heightens a sense of unreality. Although clearly set in the real world, uncomfortable historical moments are muted on the TV or turned over in favour of old, lushly romantic song-and-dance films. The hateful Strickland has a picture-perfect family which could be a cut-out from a 1950’s cereal advertisement, where the only uncleanliness are his slowly rotting fingers which are severed early in the film and reattached. This physical degradation is a classic del Toro trope and reminded me of Captain Vidal’s grotesquely slashed cheek in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).

We discover that Elisa is an orphan who was pulled from the river as a baby, which recalls Pan’s Labyrinth’s central character Ophelia and the premise of The Orphanage (2007). Elisa’s connection with water is a potent theme throughout the film and illustrates the connection she feels between herself and the captive Amphibi-manTM. She is shown on several occasions pleasuring herself in the bathtub and the audience is led to wonder whether her attraction to the creature is indicative of something hidden. Indeed, when the Amphibi-man unlocks her underwater ‘potential’ it is a beautiful moment which harks back to a question del Toro often poses his audience at the end of his films – are you a realist or a fantasist? I think he would hope we are the latter.

The film is acted brilliantly with Sally Hawkins showing that she would have been at home in the Silent Cinema-era as the mute Elisa. Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer both excel as Elisa’s accomplices who are both dissatisfied with their circumstances – Giles is an artist without a job and a gay man in an intolerant time, while Zelda is an unappreciated wife, but both find heart and happiness in Elisa. Michael Shannon is Michael Shannon, and his take on Michael Shannon for The Shape of Water is the perfect del Toro villain; the director has a clear abhorrence for fascistic, sadistic men who only care about orders – Strickland’s simple “I deliver” is one of the great lines of cold villainy. As usual though, special credit goes to Michael Stuhlbarg, who must surely be seen as one of this century’s best character actors.

The Shape of Water looks set to scoop a couple of major Oscars and I would say it deserves them. The film has so many wonderful moments – my favourite was Elisa finding the Amphibi-man standing awestruck in a cinema, staring at the screen. Guillermo del Toro is a unique visionary who had me doing the same.

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