14th February 2018 (UK)
At a top secret research facility in the 1950s, a lonely janitor forms a unique relationship with an amphibious creature that is being held in captivity.
Guillermo del Toro
Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins
Master of modern fantasy Guillermo del Toro returns to his whimsical ways after pitting robots against monsters in Pacific Rim and conjuring up scares in gorgeously designed spooky houses in Crimson Peak with The Shape of Water, a romantic drama that takes the best of classic Hollywood movies and creates a film unlike any other.
Set in the 1960s, The Shape of Water sees a lonely, mute janitor named Eliza (Sally Hawkins) develop a unique connection with a creature held in captivity at the top-secret facility where she works. Enlisting the help of her neighbour and good friend Giles (Richard Jenkins) along with her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), they devise a plan to release the specimen. But with a determined Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) on their tail, hellbent on torturing the creature for potential advances in the Soviet Space Race, this will be no easy task.
There are absolutely no weak links in the casting, as Sally Hawkins displays incredible emotional transparency as Eliza, using only sign language and facial expressions to make her point. The occasional subtitle is used to convey her signing, but her performance through movement is so convincing that they’re not necessary to understand what is going on.
Richard Jenkins as Giles is the perfect companion to Eliza too. He’s understanding, patient and an incredibly talented artist who has his own struggles with love, while Octavia Spencer shines as she finds herself in a 1960s government building again after 2017s Hidden Figures as the chatty but supportive co-worker Zelda.
Long-time del Toro collaborator Doug Jones reteams with the director to don a beautifully realistic suit to play the Amphibian Man and much like Sally Hawkins’ Eliza he communicates only through actions and mimicking. It’s this silent relationship which anchors the film and both of their stellar performances earn every single emotional response they elicit.
It is Michael Shannon, however, who brings the threat as the straight-talking, stony-faced Strickland. Shannon has firmly established himself as one of the best actors of our generation, and The Shape of Water proves that he’s also one of the most menacing screen presences when he chooses to be. His determination, desperation and pure hatred towards the creature are equally absorbing and frightening to watch unfold, all the while he’s nursing a gruesome injury that eventually leads to a scene certainly not for the squeamish.
As expected with a del Toro release, the production design is exquisite. Each scene is a meticulously detailed snapshot of 1960s rain-lashed Baltimore and the whole feature has a cold blue and green tint washing through it. It also feels like Guillermo’s most unrestrained movie for mainstream audiences too, as his imagination spills freely onto the screen, sometimes to a temporarily jarring effect; one moment characters sit in silence and the next there’s a tribute to Old Hollywood in the form of a black and white dance number. Put simply, to get the most out of The Shape of Water, you should let its prejudice-smashing story flow right through you and ride the waves of spontaneous scene switch ups.
Speaking of Old Hollywood tributes, del Toro’s influences are undeniably on show throughout. His love of cinema, arguably the real romance at play here, is an integral part in the grand scheme of things and on the most fundamental level of homages, the creature itself is molded in the image of that seen in the 1954 sci-fi classic The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Never does The Shape of Water become a cheap imitation of any of the films it so lovingly owes a debt to, however – it is entirely its own monster.
It’s not just classic cinema that gets its due here, as music is given its worthwhile tribute in various forms. The French-tinged score from Oscar-winning composer Alexandre Desplat surrounds the film and, unusually, string instrument inclusion is minimal with Desplat opting for flutes, whistling and accordions. The soundtrack keeps the vintage feel alive too as Eliza plays vinyl records to Amphibian Man with one recurring song, You’ll Never Know, in particular a standout.
Everything about The Shape of Water is timeless. From its central narrative of pure love against all odds to the social issues which unfortunately still plague the world today, it is a film that encapsulates a certain period in history while being incredibly relevant to here and now. It might be impossible to clarify what shape water actually is, but with an impressive 13 Oscar nominations and all of them thoroughly deserved, the colour of The Shape of Water may very well be gold.
Rock-solid casting choices resulting in no weak links in performances
Exquisite production design
Amphibian Man costume is wonderful