The Shape of Water, 2017.
Directed by Guillermo del Toro.
Starring Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg, Nick Searcy, and David Hewlett.
At a top-secret research facility in the 1960s, a lonely janitor forms a unique relationship with an amphibious creature that is being held in captivity.
The Shape of Water is a classic story: lonely girl meets lonely boy – the two fall in love – girl tries to free boy from evil corporation – boy eats the neighbour’s cat… you know, the usual.
Okay, so The Shape of Water isn’t your usual romance story. Though it does share a somewhat familiar drama/romance story progression, at least as far as its emotional cues are concerned, its style is something rarely (if ever) seen in the genre. A style that is one-hundred-and-ten percent Guillermo del Toro.
As would be expected from the man that created Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, and the couch gag for The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror XXIV, The Shape of Water is a masterclass in how to blend atmospheres in a way that appears totally seamless. The movie can go from funny, to heartfelt, to downright brutal in a matter of minutes, but the impact of the sequence is never lessened by this variety. Dramatic moments are never undercut by cheap one-liners, heartfelt moments are never overplayed to the point that they become crass and melodramatic, and the brutality is never used simply to deliver a cheap shock. The film even has a moderate political angle, yet this never feels overplayed or preachy, and is at times genuinely thought-provoking.
The entire cast also do a fantastic job of adding their own flavour to this diverse palate. Sally Hawkins’ mute Elisa grounds the story as the it is very much shown through her eyes, for the most part at least. Hawkins has an uncanny ability to convey meaning and emotion through her eyes and mannerisms. In fact, she is so good that every single line she signed played in my head with a distinct and recognisable tone of voice. Doug Jones, likewise mute in his amphibian suit, similarly manages to capture the not-quite-human, not-quite-animal persona of his creature through refined yet bestial movement.
Huge credit must also go to Michael Shannon and Octavia Spencer, whose characters couldn’t be more different, but whose performances are equally commendable. To label Spencer’s Zelda as the comic relief character would be unfair, as she brings so much more to the table than mere laughs, but there is no denying that her sass is the most consistent source of laughs in the entire movie. As for Shannon’s Strickland, though he plays what is near enough an archetypal villain, he does so with such malice that you can’t help but feel a shiver run down your spine whenever he enters a scene.
Aesthetically, The Shape of Water is one of the most eye-catching and pleasant-looking films of the last few years. The warm, inviting orange of Elisa’s flat is unmistakeable homely, and the deep, swirling blue of the underwater shots is both calming and truly beautiful – thank you very much Dan Laustsen for your spectacular cinematography. Even the green tinge that stains the walls of the secret military facility is interesting, and draws attention to the technology that invokes a sense of seemingly impossible stylistic nostalgia for an era that many of us never lived through.
No film is without its flaws, The Shape of Water included. For a film that has been nominated for Oscars in sound editing and sound mixing, the mix sometimes came across a little flat, and I can’t say the music really stuck with me all that much. But fuck it, I really don’t care. I think that spending time discussing the minor qualms I have with a film as tremendous as this one pretty much defeats the point of talking about truly excellent art.
Beautiful, stylish, and unforgettable. The Shape of Water is one of del Toro’s finest films to date.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★/ Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
James Turner is a writer and musician based in Sheffield. You can follow him on Twitter @JTAuthor