If you’re lucky, you’ll come across a handful of films over your lifetime that redefine the way you look at movies in general. Yes, in some cases, this could be a bad thing – take 2003’s infamous Gigli as an example – a film that proved that there were new depths to the lows that a film can reach. In the case of cinematic visionary Guillermo del Toro’s latest masterpiece, Shape of Water, the ability to surprise and astonish an audience is however a really, really good thing.
Without giving anything away that you can’t already deduce from a trailer (warning, minor plot spoiler referenced throughout this review), Shape of Water tells the extremely odd, but oddly charming tale of love between a woman and an underwater humanoid-like beast. Yes, you read right: Shape of Water is a dark romantic comedy about forbidden love and its sometimes humorous, awkward and even dreadful implications.
At the surface, you can easily mistake Shape of Water for a rather whimsical and quintessentially French-inspired film with deliberate sprinkles of quaintness scattered throughout. But every time the audience is tempted to get lulled into the film’s sweetly sentimental lullaby (supported by an amazing score), del Toro provides a paradoxically melancholic staccato. Sometimes, these expertly crafted little moments of contrast are small and barely noticeable, but in other instances, they manifest as noticeably dark and even discerning plot devices. This constant shift between ‘cute’ and ‘not so cute’ teases the audience intellectually throughout the film and it’s clear that del Toro took a lot of care in delicately decorating his cinematic tapestry.
"But every time the audience is tempted to get lulled into the film’s sweetly sentimental lullaby, del Toro provides a paradoxically melancholic staccato..."
As with all great films, the director’s great ambitions are supported by a stellar cast, with Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine, Happy-go-lucky) leading the helm as the film’s highly intriguing protagonist. The greatest compliment I can give Hawkins is that it’s hard to imagine anyone else fulfilling this role – it really feels like the role was meant to played by Hawkins and anyone else would have done it a disservice. There’s an unbashful sincerity to Hawkin’s portrayal of the mute Eliza Esposito that is nothing short but mesmerising.
The rest of the cast is also fantastic and it would be insulting not to mention Michael Shannon’s (Nocturnal Animals) role as Strickland, one of the most infuriatingly fascinating antagonists you’ll come across. Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg and Richard Jenkins fill out the rest of the key supporting roles in expert fashion, resulting in an acting tour de force that will likely stay with you for weeks after you’ve watched the film.
The broader cast does an amazing job in fleshing out the film’s secondary themes and motives, some of which are as intriguing as the main love story that it all revolves around. And even though some of the film’s traditional character archetypes and sub-plots feel awkwardly outdated for a 2018 film (e.g. the suppression of women in the workplace, sexual discrimination), it soon becomes clear that del Toro intended for this to be the case. Del Toro is perhaps trying to remind his modern day audience (that have been desensitised to these matters) that they are still very relevant issues in today’s modern society.
|Enjoying lunch and a song with a new friend.|
It would also be a shame not to mention the film’s stunning visual style. When you consider that del Toro was the man responsible for the visually assaulting Pan’s Labyrinth, then it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Shape of Water is yet another visual feast for the eyes. This time around, Del Toro juxtaposes his knack for visceral visual horror with a world that feels like something taken straight out of the pages of a Disney fairy tale. This results in a hauntingly beautiful cinematic painting that is hard to compare with anything that has come before it.
To simply sum up Shape of Water as a ‘Beauty and the Beast’ for modern adult audiences, is in my opinion, underestimating its brilliance. There is a layered complexity to this enthrallingly strange film that makes it transcend anything that it might resemble on a surface level. What makes the film a true masterpiece is that it can appeal to different audiences at the same, without alienating the rest: whether you are looking for a sentimental, but slightly quirky romantic drama; or rather, a highly artistic and dark cinematic excursion, Shape of Water will take you on a journey you are unlikely to forget.
Highlight: Any scene with Hawkins in it – take your pick.