Finally arriving in the U.K. following great acclaim in the U.S. – as well as scoring the most Oscar nominations this year – The Shape of Water proves to be every bit as great as the hype suggests. Directed by one of the masters of cinematic fantasy Guillermo del Toro, the film tells the story of Eliza, a mute janitor at a secretive government facility in the 1960s, who meets and quickly falls in love with the mysterious ‘Asset’.
Del Toro has said in interviews that the creation of The Shape of Water was a collaborative process with Sally Hawkins, and this clearly shows in the final product. Hawkins gives one of her best performances in an already excellent career, one that is complimented by del Toro regular Doug Jones. Both actors create fantastic chemistry from physical performances alone; there is a clear sense of affection between the characters, made all the more impressive by the lack of any words and the layers of prosthetics.
Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins and Michael Stuhlbarg give excellent supporting performances, all playing characters who feel as fully realised and essential to the plot as Eliza. For various reasons, each of them are frequently rendered as silent as Eliza by 1960s American society, providing a satisfying counterpoint to Michael Shannon’s villainous Strickland. Shannon has always been great at playing villains, and in del Toro and Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay he is given his best yet. Strickland is a character who is immediately and thoroughly unlikable, but one with clear insecurities to show the audience why he acts the way he does. He acts as a contrast to the heroes of the film: a bullying misogynist at the head of an apparently perfect nuclear family, determined of his own infallibility and immediately distrustful of anything out of the ordinary, as shown by his horrified reaction to an early deformity.
Some elements of the plot may feel slightly more rushed through than some might expect, but this is often because they are not the focus. The Shape of Water is, first and foremost, a love story, albeit one with an added dose of del Toro and his love for bizarre, supernatural creatures. While he presents both of these tones, it is worth mentioning that, like all of del Toro’s films, a slightly darker undercurrent runs through The Shape of Water, with moments of violence both sudden and shocking giving a very real sense of stakes.
Visually, the film is outstanding; the Oscar-nominated production design perfectly evokes the 1960s setting, while simultaneously feeling timeless, an aspect assisted by the script, which emphasises the still-relevant issues of race, gender and sexuality. This timelessness is further shown through Eliza and her neighbour Giles living above a cinema, the sounds of films playing beneath them often be heard in the background. Similarly, classical Hollywood seems to have influenced Alexandre Desplat, whose beautiful soundtrack frequently evokes the Hollywood musicals which Eliza and Giles are shown to enjoy.
As suggested by the title, water is an important theme throughout the film, not just because of the aquatic nature of Doug Jones’ character. The design of the film itself often evokes water; the pacing is steady, but never too fast, and scenes flow naturally without any events feeling forced. The colour palette is largely made up of blues and greens which, combined with moments of excellent framing, contribute to some beautiful cinematography which helps to echo the ‘fairy-tale’ tone of the film.
The Shape of Water definitely feels like a passion project for Guillermo del Toro, combining his twin loves of romance and fantasy to great effect. That passion shines through in every scene and, combined with outstanding writing and great performances, results in a film that is both narratively satisfying and an absolute joy to watch.
Words by Adam Wells