Review: The Shape of Water

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is making waves amongst the film-making world, and for good reason. Beyond its many awards, it is one of the most unique stories seen on screen in years.

Director del Toro is known for creating films that have a very particular style, both in his visuals and in his stories. Films like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth play out their narratives in a fairy-tale-like setting which is still grounded in the real world. Del Toro’s films also have recurring character types, particularly the outsider figures who are shunned by those around them, and the sympathetic monsters like Santi and the Faun. The settings for his films tend to take place at tumultuous periods in history, Devil’s and Pan’s being set during the Spanish Civil War. Several of these traits are found even in the director’s more mainstream outings such as the two Hellboy films.

The Shape of Water continues the director’s key themes. We have Sally Hawkins in the lead role as mute cleaner Elisa, and Octavia Spencer as her African American co-worker who support each other through the less-than-liberal working climate of 1960s America. We have Michael Shannon giving a very sinister and threatening performance as the gill creature’s psychotic head of security.

Del Toro, unsurprisingly, delivers one of the most interesting sympathetic monsters in cinema history here. Unlike his other mythic creations which derive more from classic folklore, the gill creature is very cine-literate creation. Based upon del Toro’s fascination of the 1954 Universal monster movie ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon’, the creature in ‘Shape’ is a physical copy of titular beast. The core relationship between Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones is a play on the beauty and beast story prominent in the 50s movie. Shannon states many times that the creature was discovered in the forests of the Amazon, exactly like his black-and-white counterpart. Where the relationship between the two leads is concerned, the film could almost be viewed as a very loose remake of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, albeit with a gentler tone.

Plenty of online articles have mentioned explicit romance between the pair (most of them referring to it as ‘fish sex’), and admittedly it is a strange concept when said out loud. It was something I was a little concerned about going in, since the comments I’d read made it sound unnecessarily graphic and explicit. But watching the scenes in question, the comments are quite misleading. For my money, I felt that despite being quite overt, the scenes never felt off-putting or unnatural. In fact, they felt quite the opposite, and this is a real testament to the way the film develops the relationship between the two. When the pair finally consummate their affection, there has been enough touching and well-written character development that it comes across as rather heart-warming.

Everything in the film falls in place perfectly. The music used throughout complements the aesthetics perfectly, both the beautiful score by Alexandre Desplat and the use of various old-time tracks from the likes of Glenn Miller, Andy Williams and many others. There is a sense of other-worldliness in the set design, particularly in the facility where the gill-man is kept, harking back to the look of the Hellboy films. Maybe most importantly, it manages to talk about prejudice in a fresh manner. Homosexuality, racism, rejection and isolation in general are all explored throughout. The idea that all those who end up helping the gill-man are social outcasts of the 60s – a gay man, a mute, an African-American and a Russian – all joining forces in the freedom of a creature also seen as a freakish and undesirable.

Believe the hype. It is a wonderful piece of work that will enthral classic film and art-house audiences everywhere.


Words by Callum Reid

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