LFF 2017: The Shape of Water Review
More on BFI London Film Festival 2017
It’s the new Guillermo del Toro film.
Go see it.
Do you honestly need to hear any more than that?
To say that there isn’t another working director quite like Guillermo del Toro would be an understatement. This man doesn’t just understand genre films, he lives and breathes them. He creates worlds of terror and beauty that entertain and enchant. Even his more mainstream fare still has more creativity in one frame than Michael Bay has in his entire filmography. Therefore it is unsurprising that his latest work, The Shape of Water, is a sweet and delicate 1960s set fairy tale of monsters, maidens, and courage, but with a few surprises along the way and with all of the beauty and brutality that we have come to expect.
A mute woman working as a cleaner in a government facility, Elisa (Sally Hawkins) lives an unassuming but lonely life. One night at her work a team led by the imposing Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings in a new research subject: an amphibious man (Doug Jones). Elisa reaches out to the creature and the two form a bond, which is threatened when Strickland decides that the next stage of research should be dissection.
It cannot be an easy thing when your central romance is not only between a person and a fish creature, but also that the growing relationship has to be communicated convincingly without a single word of spoken dialogue. Thankfully, the actors are more than up for the job. Doug Jones, who has previously worked with del Toro on five feature films, is more than a little used to having to rely on physical expression while under layers of prosthetics, does a brilliant job, managing to be both curiously innocent and also quite wild. Sally Hawkins gives a phenomenal performance the likes of which we have not seen from her before. Elisa is a figure of beautiful and delicate strength, unable to speak and yearning to be heard and accepted. Neither she nor the fish man belong in the world around them, and so they find belonging together. It’s sweet and simple and beautifully uncomplicated the way they make a connection.
They are backed up by a stellar supporting cast, particularly Michael Shannon as the twisted alpha male Strickland. He is threatening and fascinating in a way that calls to mind the sinister Captain Vidal from Guillermo del Toro’s brilliant Pan’s Labyrinth. Indeed this is probably del Toro’s best work since that film, and I say that as somebody who loved Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak. Richard Jenkins plays Giles, Elisa’s neighbour who like her lives above an all-night cinema (is that a thing? I want that to be a thing) but stays shut-in most of his time, living with his cats and working on art for advertising. His rapport with Hawkins’ Elisa is charming and the pair make a good duo. At work Elisa's main ally is Zelda, who is played well by Octavia Spencer but it’s nothing we haven’t seen from her before. There is also a danger in a film like this for a scientist character to be very one-note or fall into the “Mad Scientist” category, but Michael Stuhlberg as Dr. Hoffstetler brings a great sense of wider picture morality to the role.
As is typical for del Toro there is a lot of beautiful detail on show here, and cinematographer Dan Lausten, who also worked on Crimson Peak and this year’s John Wick: Chapter Two, captures the mood and the colour so perfectly. There is also this Old Hollywood vibe running through the film, particularly through the use of music, which may seem like an odd choice at first but really adds to the overall theme of expression and emotion. This is the kind of movie that the more you think about the more you will appreciate and fall in love with.
The best way to really describe The Shape of Water is magical; dreamy and at times overwhelming, but always a jubilant experience.