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Released: 14th February 2018 (UK)
Length: 123 Minutes
Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg and Nick Searcy
Fantasy has given filmgoers plenty of imaginative creations through the decades, but the setting and subject matter are often drastically different. The latest addition to fantastical drama is more grounded; it’s very much a modern rendition of 1954’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon, which also gave of plenty of inspiration for The Shape of Water. But through updating to modern techniques and moving past the monster movie tropes, director Guillermo Del Toro has crafted something truly beautiful.
Draped in a coat of Cold War militarism, The Shape of Water takes place in a government lab in 1962. The mute Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) works as a cleaner at a secret government facility in Baltimore. When a strange humanoid creature (performed by Doug Jones) is brought in for experimentation, she forms a bond with it and resolves along with her close friends Giles (Richard Jenkins) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer) to set it free. The narrative unfolds from the perspectives of these characters as the bonds between them are eventually tested by the prying eyes of Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the ruthless head of the facility who beats and tortures the creature to learn its secrets. While the plot is straightforward for the genre, it never wastes a minute in its execution; there are no unnecessary side tangents as the film focuses entirely on the characters, each with their own perspectives and plans for the creature moving back and forth between them with excellent pacing. Each character has a definitive start and end point but most of all, the connection between Elisa and the creature is always the primary focus and it’s this aspect of the film that will pull audiences in more than anything else.
What makes the characters worth caring about in The Shape of Water is their position in relation to the setting. Each of the protagonists is an outcast; invisible, even shunned by the society around them, which brings an immense amount of sympathy to their characters in their own ways. This is shown through their statuses in the lab; the cleaners are ethnic minorities through and through, a stark contrast to their superiors who are exclusively white, demonstrating their dominance in several ways. Colonel Strickland has a lot of symbolism dedicated to his character, the first being the long black weapon he brandishes at all times. Michael Shannon does a great job of making you detest him throughout. But on the other side of the coin, each of the main characters are both interesting and lovable. It’s astounding how Sally Hawkins communicates every facet of Elisa through sign language and when you place her with the creature himself, the result is one of the most heartfelt and emotional bonds in years and it’s all done without a single line of dialogue. The creature is incredibly expressive and innocent, out of his element he’s vulnerable and yet he will grow on you over time, particularly through the ways he slowly learns and grows closer to those who help him. Octavia Spender’s Zelda is both charismatic and supportive throughout the proceedings and Giles has another strong bond with Elisa in that his orientations often keep from interacting with others outside the small flat they share. With all their struggles, the main characters form an strong complement to the main plot.
The Shape of Water is a stunning film to look at and not just for its authentic and detailed 1960s backdrop. Tints of teal and bright greens colour the film from top to bottom, creating an aquatic feel surrounding the creature at the film’s centre. The use of real sets and costumes, particularly on the creature itself with all its scaly skin feels especially lifelike. On top of that, some extra details were added to the face to create a more expressive image. The sets are also simplified to the government lab, Giles’ flat and a few select locations, mirroring how the characters rarely venture out in public. The musical score is fantastic, perfectly capturing the romance that builds over the film’s two-hour runtime; a serenade plays constantly to give off this feeling, along with several ambient pieces to build the atmosphere as well as rougher sounding tracks that heighten the tension at key points. Every part of the film’s presentation comes together superbly. At times The Shape of Water even goes full arthouse, transporting the viewer back to a golden age of 1950s glitz and black and white films. It’s absolutely mesmerising.
The Shape of Water is a detailed, passionate and sublime work of art, and a masterclass in visual storytelling. It will both dazzle you with its visuals and move you with its story and characters, making it an unmissable film.
Rating: 5/5 Stars (Exceptional)