Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Screenplay: Guillermo Del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Octavia Spencer
Duration: 118 min
BBFC Certification: 15
Guillermo Del Toro is a visionary director with a history of telling fantastical stories including demons, ghosts, vampires and giant robots, but he never forgets the humanity of his characters. No matter how chaotic the action and drama that unfolds on screen gets, his heroes are always believable and fascinating. With The Shape of Water, he introduces us to cinema’s most unusual, but sympathetic couple.
Sally Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito a cleaner who works the night shift at a secretive government research facility outside Baltimore. Elisa is also a mute who has just two friends who she communicates with by sign language – her co-worker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) an out of work artist who occupies his time painting and flirting with a waiter at the local diner.
One night, a large metal container full of water is delivered to the facility. Arriving with the container is shady government agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) who captured the “asset” within it in the wilds of the Amazon. Elisa becomes curious and sneaks into the room where the container is housed and discovers that it holds an amphibious merman.
Every night Elisa secretly begins visiting the room where the merman is kept, bringing him eggs to eat, playing him music and begins to teach him sign language. Over time this leads to a bond developing between the two. However, as Strickland’s treatment of the merman becomes more and more violent, it becomes apparent that Elisa must act to protect her new friend.
A mixture of thriller and romantic drama, The Shape of Water also acts as Del Toro’s love letter to the Hollywood of yesteryear. This is apparent in the set design and sublime cinematography which pays homage to ‘50s Technicolor – all pastel greens and blues. There is even a stunningly realised black & white musical number that will melt the heart of even the most jaded viewer. And the underwater sequences are some of the most beautifully scenes I have seen in a film for quite some time.
The film’s most apparent influences are Beauty and the Beast and Creature from the Black Lagoon (especially in the design of the merman), but there are also traces of King Kong and some of Del Toro’s earlier work – most notably Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth. You really get the feeling that the director’s entire career has been leading to this one film.
Hawkins is captivating as the lead, conveying so much emotion and depth just using her eyes and facial expressions – she really is the heart and soul of the film and I couldn’t imagine the film working with anyone else in the role. Equally enthralling is Doug Jones as the merman, again managing to really portray a sympathetic antagonist without uttering a word of dialogue. Whereas any other filmmaker would have used CGI to bring the merman to life, Del Toro’s decision to have Jones play the part in a bodysuit is a masterstroke, bringing more soul to the role than a few pixels would have been able to. Jones is a tremendous actor who specialises in bodysuit roles and has worked with Del Toro in the past and is currently the stand out performance in the recent Star Trek: Discovery TV series.
The supporting performances are also of a high calibre. The chemistry between Hawkins and Jenkins is infectious, showing us the warmth of companionship of two essentially lonely people. Giles is a man lost in the world – desperate to regain the purpose his job gave him and just as desperate to find love in a time when being homosexual was largely regarded as an aberration. Spencer breathes life and soul into Zelda, a character, who in a lesser actor’s hands, could be very one dimensional. Michael Shannon always gives a top notch performance in anything he’s in, and The Shape of Water is no exception. As the film’s villain, he is equally cruel and sadistic, but we see the struggle in his family life, and his fear of failure which prevents him from just being your stereotypical bad guy.
Very deserving of the Oscar for Best Picture, The Shape of Water is Guillermo Del Toro’s masterpiece, a beautiful film that perfectly encapsulates the human condition – the need to love and the need to be loved. It is one film that I’m sure will go down in history as one of the greatest of all time.
The Shape of Water is released on DVD and Blu-ray by 20th Century Fox. This review is for the DVD which includes as extras:
A Fairy Tale For Troubled Times – a behind the scenes documentary