Anticipation for Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water has been sky high, thanks to its prestigious cast and a beautiful trailer. Amazingly, it completely surpasses these expectations to conjure up a sensational Cold War fairy tale; del Toro’s finest English-language work to date and nearly on a par with his masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth.
Naturally, the design work is faultless, gorgeous and grubby, with wonder around every corner. Often, as with Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak, del Toro can let the spectacular visuals make up for slack elsewhere, but here, the deeper stuff matches the surface every step of the way.
Sally Hawkins is mesmerising as Elisa, a mute cleaner at a government science facility who develops a connection with a Black Lagoon-esque creature (Doug Jones) that has been brought in for violent, invasive tests. Their relationship blossoms into the year’s oddest romance, handled with such earnestness that any possible awkwardness is shunted aside in favour of deep, sincere feeling.
At the same time, The Shape of Water never skimps on gory monster antics, and the balance between genuine horror, Soviet-era intrigue, and delightful uplift is perfectly struck. Michael Shannon is terrific as barbaric security guard Strickland, while Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer each bring a unique blend of pathos and joy as Elisa’s close friends Giles and Zelda. Giles’ obsession with old, black-and-white musicals injects the film with a dance-like rhythm that sweeps you along like the most comfortable riptide imaginable.
Rare is the film that gets under your skin in both a disconcerting and gently warming way, but this is exactly the trick that The Shape of Water manages. It’s a film that only del Toro could have made, and should by all rights put him in the centre of awards conversations come the end of the year.
CAST: Sally Hawkins, Michael Stuhlbarg, Michael Shannon, Doug Jones, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins
DIRECTOR: Guillermo del Toro
WRITERS: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
SYNOPSIS: An otherworldly fairy tale, set against the backdrop of Cold War era America circa 1963. In the hidden high-security government laboratory where she works, lonely Elisa is trapped in a life of silence and isolation. Elisa’s life is changed forever when she and co-worker Zelda discover a secret classified experiment.