Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Written by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor
Starring Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Doug Jones, Richard Jenkins, David Hewlett, Michael Stuhlbarg, Nick Searcy
BFI London Film Festival Review by Chris Olson
In 2015 cinematic auteur Guillermo del Toro delivered a darkly magnificent gothic horror with Crimson Peak. Two years later and the director has served up arguably his most inspired movie since 2006's Pan's Labyrinth, with The Shape of Water, a story that is as equally dark as both movies but also loaded with love, allegories of sexism, racism, and revolution, and a collage of genres and tributes to classic cinema that is utterly remarkable.
Sally Hawkins plays the lead role of Eliza, a charming single woman whose mutism fails to keep her back from enjoying a highly organised lifestyle, one she shares with her closeted roommate Giles (Richard Jenkins), who is a source of endless idiosyncratic flamboyance that is brilliant. Working in a highly secretive Cold War factory, Eliza inadvertently stumbles upon a fascinating discovery: an amphibious man (Doug Jones), whose initially vicious and dangerous demeanour is softened by numerous acts of friendship from our protagonist.
Michael Shannon plays one of the higher ups, who looks to exploit the saltwater creature (who can also walk on land), playing the role of misogynist, racist, violent white man with skill and aplomb. His agenda and purpose stands as the very antithesis of the blossoming affections between Eliza and the amphibious man.
Before the screening at the BFI London Film Festival 2017, del Toro made a connection between the idea of love and the world we live in now. Indeed, the title of the movie - The Shape of Water - refers to this concept. It is this simplistic beauty that makes this film so undeniably peerless. Del Toro is a filmmaker who totally understands visual storytelling in the cinematic medium, capturing endless layers and themes in his movies that never cease to amaze audiences. The Shape of Water is a shining example of what this man can do.
Much like Pan's Labyrinth, fantasy elements and period settings are used to draw comparisons with modern culture and society. The Cold War has long served as a backdrop to numerous stories that attempt to bludgeon audiences with the idea that we haven't come along as far as we might think we have. In this, though, painfully apparent thematic similarities to the world around us seem to have seeped through the pores of the screenplay. Notions about power, racism and sexism may well have been initially in del Toro's story, but even the genius he is could not have predicted every one of the tragic parallels his movie creates, such as gun control and sexuality, that have become even more topical in recent weeks and months.
Hawkins is an absolute delight to watch on screen. Her effervescent turn is compelling and convincing throughout and she expertly copes with the demand for physical acting. Shannon is on top form as always, as is Jenkins. Jones, under the copious layers of Creature from the Black Lagoon make-up also deserves a nod of the head. Octavia Spencer, who plays Eliza's coworker, is also brilliant. Serving up some wonderful comedy alongside tenderness towards her friend, and fear at the world around her. Michael Stuhlbarg plays a scientist/Russian spy with excellent conviction, and his character is wonderful to watch as the story progresses.
The utterly beautiful mise en scéne that del Toro delivers in every frame of The Shape of Water is mesmerising. This is a film to literally sink into and let it wash over you with its sumptuous beauty. The lasting effect of it, I hope, will be that audiences emerge from this cinematic baptism refreshed from the experience, cleansed of the dirt of the world, and ready to keep spreading the love that really is all around.
The Shape of Water is currently scheduled to come to UK Cinemas in February 2018.
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