It is hard to believe that over 11 years have passed since arguably Guillermo del Toro’s finest work, ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’. Considered by many as his magnum opus, his films have been varying in quality since, although never not magnificent to look at. Supposedly the only film the visionary director has been 100% happy with, ‘The Shape of Water’ is possibly the only other del Toro film to rival the masterpiece status of ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’, and that is not something which should be said lightly.
Back in familiar territory of dark, gothic fairy tales, ‘The Shape of Water’ is an absolute masterstroke, full of fantasy, wonder, gorgeous visuals, and a subtle nod in the direction of influential old Hollywood movies. This does put it into the category of films the Academy will unquestionably fawn over, but it is impossible not to fall in love with this film. ‘Pan’s’ was beautiful and twisted tragedy, whereas ‘The Shape of Water’ is beautiful and twisted romance, and it is completely stunning.
Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins) plays a mute woman, obsessed with routine, she works nights at a government facility. Whilst she has strong friendships with her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), her disability prevents her from forging meaningful connections with the people she comes into contact with. That is until she happens across an amphibious creature which is being held at the facility she works at for testing. Somehow able to develop an unexplainable bond to this creature, they connect through basic communication and a mutual understanding.
To spoil much more of the story than mentioned above would be a crime, and this is one of those films which is good to go into as blind as possible; although its festival buzz may be hard to silence! The relationship between Eliza and the creature goes to wonderful and incredibly unexpected places, and despite being fantastical in nature, it never feels anything less than completely and utterly genuine. To watch this relationship develop is simply mesmerising, and Sally Hawkins gives a performance which is breathtaking. To be able to communicate so passionately and with the range that she does, without words, is a monumental achievement, and if you were yet to make your mind up about Best Actress Oscar prospects, it might just be worth putting some money on Hawkins right now.
The supporting cast, particularly Octavia Spencer and Michael Shannon, are also perfectly matched to their characters. Spencer provides some welcome light relief, and fresh from her acclaimed supporting role in ‘Hidden Figures’, she continues to be a dependable and consistently watchable actress. Whilst normally the best thing about any film he is in, Michael Shannon does play second fiddle to Hawkins’ incredible lead performance, but he excels at playing the genuinely menacing and detestable villain. He’s not quite up there with the abhorrent Captain Vidal from ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ – few people are – but he is on fine form and gives an incredibly memorable performance.
Whilst on the whole it is a thing of beauty, it equally never shies away from some truly horrifying moments, and there’s a couple of genuinely shocking, gory scenes, just in case you’d forgotten you were watching a del Toro film! Initially this may not seem in keeping with the rest of the film, but it works so perfectly, and gives it an edge which helps it to truly stand out.
Put simply, ‘The Shape of Water’ is utterly magical in every sense of the word, and “more” than what you could wish for in all conceivable ways. It is more than a love story, more than a fantasy, more than a story, and more than a film; it is a transcendental masterpiece, and one which words can hardly do justice. With incredible performances, absolutely stunning visuals (special nod to the underwater scenes which are totally breathtaking), masterful direction, and a unique and memorable story, ‘The Shape of Water’ deserves to be looked back on with the same fondness and reverence that ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ is. A modern masterpiece, and a truly spectacular film.
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones