Monday, 12 February 2018

Film Review: The unforgettable romantic fantasy of The Shape of Water makes for Guillermo del Toro's best film yet

I often find the best kinds of films are the ones that, if you describe them loosely to someone, make you sound like some kind of mad man for loving them. With Pans Labyrinth, Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak already under his belt, Guillermo del Toro is something of a wizard with this kind of film making - he has a way of taking reality, twisting it into fantasy, imbuing them both with a handful of genres and shining a light on everything equally. The Shape of Water, del Toro's latest film and, according to the man himself, his favourite of his filmography, doesn't just further the director's journey down this path - it completes it.

We begin in Baltimore, early 1960s during the Cold War. Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman, works in a government facility with her close friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer). The pair are cleaners and rarely have an exciting day, until a top secret lab in the facility receives a new asset - a male humanoid, amphibious creature (Doug Jones) that Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) hopes will help the U.S. in the Space Race. Elisa secretly visits the creature and forms a tight bond with him, even slowly falling love, but when she discovers Strickland is torturing him on a daily basis she attempts to rescue and free him before he is killed.

What perhaps pushes The Shape of Water from being a good film into being a truly great one is just how much material del Toro manages to pack in without ever skimping on detail. As well as this main story we have: a subplot about Elisa's neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted gay man struggling in his career and longing for purpose; a side story of a Soviet spy (Michael Stuhlbarg) getting caught up in the creature's rescue; there are even multiple scenes of Strickland in his home, del Toro humanising his villain yet never losing his monstrosity. This is a packed film with a lot to say and a lot to do, but del Toro ensures every element is operating on the same wave length. The result is a film as visually enticing as it is emotionally and thematically stunning.

As you'd expect from a del Toro film, The Shape of Water is a technical showcase from every angle. The production design is gorgeous, with giant environments that seamlessly give off the exact tone they need to - Elisa's living room is rustic but cooly inviting, the government lab is sinister yet still enigmatic. Dan Laustsen's cinematography creates image after image of beauty, but sharply transitions into pure horror whenever del Toro darkens the tone. Alexandre Desplat's score is distinctively aquatic, but so layered in soul and tone that you'll find yourself unable to shake its audible identity even days after you see the film. The Shape of Water fires on all cylinders at once, and every component succeeds in complimenting something else - it's a cinematic incarnation of pure harmony.

What elevates The Shape of Water above the rest of del Toro's filmography - and I sincerely do believe this is his best work - is his characterisation and the complexity of the people we have on screen here. In many other films a mute protagonist would be a gimmick, but del Toro turns such a notion on its head. Elisa's lack of voice works nicely during her scenes with the creature, putting them both on the same level and acting as the initial reason for Elisa's attraction to him, but more subtly her mutism works to define her friendships. The voices of black women and gay men aren't heard all that much in cinema, and they especially weren't talked about back when del Toro's film is film set, and so giving them Elisa's voice as well as their own rings with a powerful sense of emotion and accomplishment I'm not sure I'm equipped enough to put into words. The Shape of Water is unquestionably a film about acceptance, and del Toro both accepts and understands his characters.

It also helps that these two specific characters are so beautifully performed. Richard Jenkins is a total blast as Giles, it's an unquestionably fun performance that provides much of the film's humour but his more serious moments hit all the harder for it. Watch the heartbreak on his face when his secret love interest reveals himself as something of an enemy, note the shift from despair into elation as he slowly climbs on board Elisa's plan. It's a quietly touching performance, and the depth it adds to del Toro's film is unmistakable. Octavia Spencer similarly functions this way too, if to a lesser level - that's at no criticism of her performance, simply that Giles is given more emotional material than Zelda. Spencer brings her usual charm and eccentricity to the role, but her demeanour shifts around Elisa - she changes from conventional sassy woman into a deeply loyal, heavy hearted friend. Both Jenkins and Spencer's Oscar nominations are entirely earned.

And yet, the film still belongs to Sally Hawkins. In a role without words we hear Elisa louder than anyone else, through Hawkins' mannerisms and her facial expressions and her energy. It's as if Hawkins harnesses some element we aren't able to see and transmits every emotion Elisa has through the screen into our bodies, you feel everything she feels. Hawkins is playful when Elisa needs to be, heartbreaking when the film changes tone and loveable from the get go. She embodies the tone and message of the film with her performance, acting as a purely visual embodiment of everything The Shape of Water stands for. It's the performance of a lifetime and already a solid contender for what could become an all time great.

del Toro's film starts as a character study, swings round into fantasy, dives into political thriller and closes out on romance, and every last second of it is utterly brilliant. It's a joyous film experience, a writer-director in full command of his craft and easily dismissing any boundaries other film makers might struggle to break down. The Shape of Water sounds wacky on paper, but in the flesh it becomes something unforgettable - a heartfelt, entirely unique piece of cinema that uses a wordless protagonist to shout its inspiring, empowering message loud and clear. There's wonder and there's terror, elation and heartbreak, triumph and failure - every detail is realised, every emotion is felt and everything on screen comes together to transport you to another world. del Toro has scored his second masterpiece, and he still feels like he has more stories to tell. Give this man the world, let him work his talents - you might just find yourself a better person for it.

In A Sentence

As rich in character as it is beautiful in design, and sourcing an unforgettable performance from Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water finds Guillermo del Toro on peak form as he navigates a handful of genres and masters every one. A stone cold classic, lying in wait.

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