Review by Josh Teggert
Guillermo del Toro is not known for conventional filmmaking. As it happens, The Shape of Water is spilling with del Toro’s natural blend of charm and quirkiness, making it one of those rare films where it’s impossible to imagine anyone else helming it. There is an extraordinary depth to each aspect of the story, although it does perhaps borrow a few clear inspirations from del Toro’s 2006 masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth. However, that doesn’t make it any less of a beautifully dark spectacle.
The Shape of Water follows the story of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a lonely cleaner in a top-secret government facility, and her interaction with a mysterious amphibian man (Doug Jones) at the height of the Cold War. An unusual emotional connection begins to blossom between Elisa and the sea dweller, and Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) – the man who discovered the amphibious man – begins to suspect something fishy (pardon the pun) is going on.
The film builds nicely; at a length of just under two hours, The Shape of Water is both sharp and absorbing. It doesn’t need to be a three-hour masterpiece for you to be invested in the characters (as is the main argument for Blade Runner 2049’s box office failure). But crucially, it is the way that del Toro uses the time here that makes it so engrossing. He structures the film superbly, cleverly sliding subtle story implications into place with a tidiness that only becomes clear at the end.
There is a distinctive del Toro feel throughout the whole film too; never is there any doubt about who is behind the camera, as del Toro possesses a brilliant innate ability to transform a bizarre situation into something that is truly enamouring.
The Shape of Water takes some heavy influence from Pan’s Labyrinth, for example the tense period of the respective film’s setting, or the female lead’s defiant ambitions against a military figure. But The Shape of Water adds its own layers of intricacies that make it a whole new film on its own, and it’s a true delight to watch.
All this, and I’ve gone without mentioning the stunning cast. Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, who plays Elisa’s co-worker Zelda Fuller, and Richard Jenkins, Elisa’s overly nervous flat mate Giles, all get Oscar nods for their respective roles. Each nomination is deserved but it is Hawkins who is most captivating as the mute maid. Without a single spoken word, Hawkins manages to retain the interest of the viewer tastefully. The personal shots of her on the way to work are just as engrossing as the action pieces, which is down to the way del Toro beautifully captures this 1960s Baltimore setting, each shot blending lusciously with the sound, creating a charming yet eerie atmosphere typical of del Toro films.
In short, The Shape of Water is magnificent. No doubt it will be considered a classic for years to come.