The Shape of Water is a fantastical love story from acclaimed director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone). It stars Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Richard Jenkins and Michael Shannon – and was the big winner at this year’s Academy Awards, taking the little gold statues for 4 Oscars including Best Director and Best Picture.
Elisa Esposito (Hawkins) is a lonely mute cleaner at a secret government research facility. Working alongside her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), they stumble upon the facility’s new asset, a mysterious aquatic creature that the scientists and its captor, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), intend to use in the Space Race between the US and Russia. Elisa begins to visit the creature in secret after discovering it is in fact a humanoid amphibian, capable of communication and empathy. They soon develop a unique bond, and Elisa vows to free the creature from its inevitable and unethical demise.
Films like The Shape of Water are few and far between, and del Toro has used his signature vision to bring a fairy tale with new meaning to life; it’s a story of loneliness, seclusion, and friendship, but in the end it all comes down to true love. He brings his much loved creative style to form a delicious feast for eyes, pure whimsy at its very best. With astonishing set pieces, performances that pull on those heartstrings and bursts of magical colour throughout, it truly is a masterpiece in filmmaking – so it came as no surprise to see him take the Oscar for Best Director, despite being up against some very credible competitors.
Sally Hawkins is an absolute dream in this film. For a character that has not one bit of dialogue, she does an amazing job at drawing the audience in, portraying Elisa as the most endearing character you could ever come across. The range of expressions she’s able to depict without saying a word is artistry at work – she’ll make you laugh, cry, and you can’t help but fall in love with her.
With regards to the amphibian creature itself, del Toro could have taken the easier route and used CGI to animate it into the film – but instead teamed up again with long term collaborator Doug Jones. Sitting through hours of makeup and prosthetics to become Amphibian Man, Jones oozes stoicism that makes it impossible to take your eyes of him, and conveys all kinds of emotions with only his body language, facial expressions and minimal sounds.
It is the similarities between the romantic leads that makes the relationship, as fantastical as it is, so believable and watchable. Though they’re from two different species, the chemistry between Elisa and Amphibian Man is electric. Elisa being mute makes them more equal, and her teaching him sign language breaks down that initial communication barrier. The visual impact of them together is striking, too; Jones as the creature is a towering silhouette over the petite and shy Hawkins.
The rest of the cast do a fine job too; Michael Shannon is menacing as ever, a real character actor with distinguished facial features that make him perfect as the villain of the piece. Richard Jenkins is flawless as Elisa’s bumbling but caring best friend Giles, and Octavia Spencer is brilliant as Zelda and brings a stoic presence for the women of the film.
There’s also a lot of nostalgia present in The Shape of Water. Set in the 1960s, every comprehensible detail is picture perfect, and rings true to the studio era of filmmaking. Rather than filming on location, del Toro reverted to shooting on a set, helping to bring the magic of the film to life as it allows him free rein for his vision. Even the research facility is symmetrical and gloomy, yet not too clinical, almost adding an element of steampunk to the look. Elisa and Giles’ apartments are dazzlingly crafted, and the scenes that take place there almost feel as if they’re being performed on stage. The whole thing looks mesmerising, and it’s easy to see why it won the Oscar for Production Design.
At first glance, The Shape of Water has an undeniably odd concept. It updates the classic fairy tale format by combining it with what is essentially a monster movie to give a rose-tinted view of a very, very unconventional relationship. It also flips gender norms on their head, as the female protagonist acts as the saviour and the male creature is the one that needs saving, despite his god-like abilities. Whatever weirdness you’re expecting, don’t let it prevent you from watching what is a sweep-you-off-your-feet piece of cinema, and an original and dazzling love story.
We’re giving The Shape of Water the full 5 stars – Guillermo del Toro has certainly earned his Oscar wins with this dreamy, intense delight, and will likely be one of the best films of the year.
The Shape of Water is still showing in some cinemas, so catch it on the big screen while you can.