Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlberg, Doug Jones, David Hewlett, Nick Searcy
Written by: Vanessa Taylor and (also story) Guillermo Del Toro
Running Time: 123 mins
Release date: 14th February 2018
One of the reasons I love cinema is that sometimes it can produce real risky movies. Often than not, Hollywood gives audiences safe options so it takes a director like Guillermo del Toro to take chances. The Shape of Water is a huge chance and one that, thankfully, works. A weird and wonderful adult fairy tale that is romantic and dangerous and a beauty to behold. Some people may find it hard to connect to. I was mesmerised.
In a top-secret research facility, government agents have an amphibious creature locked away in a lab, where they are experimenting with it. Mute cleaner, Elisa, while working in the lab, finds herself drawn to the unusual find. This lonely woman, feeling complete isolation in a world that doesn’t accept, finds a connection with this isolated and intriguing being and doesn’t want any more cruelty inflicted on it by agent Strickland.
The first thing that strikes you about the film is the look. It is glorious. A lush mix of dull colours made radiant by a sheen that makes the whole film seem like another world. Del Toro has set the film in the 1960’s at a time when the Cold War is at its height and that the importance of finding a new weapon against the enemy is essential. Hence the secret bunker brimming with ancient scientific materials with a huge central pool in which they keep their find. The art direction and production design of the highest quality, whether it be the lab or Elisa’s apartment, set above a massive cinema that plays religious epics of the time.
What some people may find difficult to swallow is the relationship between Elisa and the being, which has more than a passing resemblance to the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Yet this is nothing more than a beauty and the beast story. Of a woman who is completed isolated from the world due to her silence and an alien. This is something that has been seen in films so many times but never with this much love and passion. Thankfully as the film plays out, you understand why she finds him so fascinating.
There are also elements in the film that some may find difficult to watch. Strickland, carrying a powerful cattle prod, uses it with a delicious glee, is sometimes too shocking. His masochistic attitude is a complete opposite to Elisa’s kindness and tenderness. Throw into the story a couple of well-placed subplots involving Elisa’s flatmate, Giles. A man who draws and longs to get his job back at an advertising agency, although his secret lifestyle holds him back, while one of the scientists, Dr Hoffstetler, is working for the enemy but is asked to do something that even he cannot undertake.
The film offers so many gems from the comic to the tragic to the exciting. At the heart is an expert cast who all give their best. Michael Shannon is superb as the evil Strickland, a man who, while having a loving family, is the complete opposite when in the office. You really grow to hate him. Richard Jenkins is always great value and no more so here as the heartbreaking Giles who has more to hide than his baldness. Octavia Spencer also is a delight as Elisa’s co-worker, while Doug Jones is mesmerising as the creature.
The film’s real strength comes from Sally Hawkins, who is just magnificent as Elisa. Never uttering a word throughout, you immediately fall in love with this gentle, caring woman. Every moment of screen time is used in some nuance or look. It is vitally important that you care about her to make the rest of the story work as well as it does and thankfully she delivers. In a year of incredibly strong female performances, she is up there with the best and hopefully, this will catapult her to superstardom.
The Shape of Water isn’t for everyone. It is a challenging film for those who like their cinema safe. If you can immerse yourself in this strange, hypnotic world, you will find this a beautifully romantic tale that will stay with you long after the lights have gone up. Not as good as del Toro’s masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth but pretty close.