Film Review: The Shape of Water (USA, 2017) is a breathtaking, big screen spectacle

At the Golden Globes last weekend, Director Guillermo Del Toro accepted a long overdue Best Director trophy for his latest effort The Shape of Water, which has been something of a surprise award season favourite around the world, topping both the Globes and BAFTA nominations lists (among others). In the speech, which brought the film’s stars Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer to tears, Del Toro summed up his career – and the spirit behind his latest film – better than I ever could,

Since childhood I have been faithful to monsters. I have been saved and absolved by them because monsters, I believe, are patron saints of our blissful imperfection…. For 25 years I have handcrafted very strange little tales made of motion, colour, light and shadow. In three precise instances, these strange stories, these fables, have saved my life. Once with Devil’s Backbone, once with Pan’s Labyrinth, and now with Shape of Water, because as directors, these things are not just entries in a filmography. We have made a deal with a particularly inefficient devil that trades three years of our lives for one entry on IMDb. And these things are biography and they are alive.

There is indeed something of a Cornetto-esque trilogy inherent in the three films mentioned; three wholly original works which were very much his own creation (Del Toro famously has a screenwriting credit on just about every film he’s directed, bar Blade II). In between, he lived with monsters across big budget graphic novel adaptations like Pacific Rim and Hellboy – all of which carry his unique tone (not to mention love of monsters), but never carry the power nor personality of Pan’s Labyrinth, a film which remains among the most beloved of the last two decades. And in The Shape of Water, away from the cheese of the Blockbuster, Del Toro has once again recaptured that magic.

Set during the Cold War, the film revolves around Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute janitor who works in a government laboratory in Baltimore. This lab would soon be host to a mysterious, magical fish/human creature (for the sake of argument, let’s call it a Merman), who had been captured (for one reason or another) from the South American river by the serious Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Different forces are at work in regards to the fate of the creature – from resident Doctor Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg, who shines here, as he did in Call Me By Your Name) to Strickland and the government itself. But it’s clear the creature’s fate is not to treat it with kindness – something Elisa, and her friends Giles (Richard Jenkins) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer) have in droves. And as she finds herself growing in compassion for a creature she identifies with due to her own imperfections, she takes it on herself to save the Merman from the clutches of the government.

From a technical point of view, the film doesn’t put a note wrong. Alexandre Desplat‘s Golden Globe winning soundtrack is wonderful (though I’d be surprised if he got the Oscar), with the film’s use of “old” music particularly inspired. Dan Laustsen‘s cinematography is breathtaking, amplified by the production design of Paul Austerberry and his team and the overall colour grading – cinema hasn’t seen this many greens and greys and blues on screen since The Matrix. The design of the creature, reminiscent of Abe Sapien in Hellboy and played in both instances by Doug Jones, is spectacular; everything about this film is a visual treat that deserves to be enjoyed on the big screen. And by the film’s end, I challenge you to not have shed a tear or two.

Richard Jenkins is unsurprisingly brilliant, and, as usual, is impossible not to love. The unsung hero of the film, most of the best scenes involve him and his relationship with his mute neighbour, and the heartbreak in the diner – a simple yet poignant symbol of the times they were living in. Could there have been a not-so-subtle message that in those days, it may have been easier to enter an interspecies relationship than a homosexual one? I’ll let you be the judge of that. Also on the periphery are Octavia Spencer – who at times looks to be back on the Hidden Figures set – as Zelda, Elisa’s confident and best friend at work. Then there’s Michael Stuhlbarg, who steals almost every scene he’s in, as the scientist who battles with morality and redemption.

Though technically brilliant, and filled with magnificent performances, I did have some minor issues in regards to some of the early storyline development – and note there are some mild spoilers ahead; though nothing that wasn’t shown in the trailers.

The connection between the two inter-species lovers didn’t feel as fleshed out as it could have been in the early scenes, and though it didn’t keep you from caring about either character and their fate, it did make their connection less believable. The same can be said for the brutalism of the  Colonel towards the creature – eventually becoming Terminator-esque in his determination to destroy him. Why did he capture him in the first place? If he didn’t care about the science of the creature, why did he bring him to a science facility? Just who was this guy? In many ways playing the same character we loved to loathe in Boardwalk Empire, we’re left without a lot of context here, leaving you to ask a lot of questions – like why weren’t there cameras in the room with the creature? I would have also liked to have seen more development of the “escape” sequence, by way of the plans between Elisa and Doctor Hoffstetler. But at this point I’m just splitting hairs.

Watering down of some plot points aside, The Shape of Water is a must-see cinema experience. Del Toro has both made a film that can sit alongside the modern blockbuster and the big budget romantic escapade. It’s the sort of experience that cinema was made for, delivering the sort of grand spectacle that reminds us why we pay the exorbitant money to sit in that dark room with strangers in the first place. And a movie about monsters is about as classic a feature of cinema as you can get. And rarely has it been done better. As Del Toro said in his Globes speech, “somewhere Lon Chaney is smiling down on all of us.” Well, he’s at least smiling down on Del Toro, that’s for sure.

Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

The Shape of Water is in cinemas Thursday through Fox Searchlight Pictures.