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Categories: Movie Reviews

Matthew Wilson reviews this year’s Oscar darling, The Shape of Water, and finds director Guillermo del Toro at, perhaps, the peak of his career.

I feel bad for not seeing Del Toro’s earlier work; he’s proven himself to be a master of the Dark Fairytale with key influences from 50s monster movies. With The Shape of Water he’s made a movie only he could by constructing a tender love story around graphic violence.

Set in the 1960s, the film follows mute janitor Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) working at a military laboratory, her only friends being closeted neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Things change once Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings in a new Asset to use in the Space Race; an Amphibious Humanoid (Doug Jones). Strickland wants to vivisect Him and learn its unique breathing structure while scientist Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) – in reality Russian Spy Dmitri – wants to study Him alive.

While The Creature remains in captivity, Elisa bonds with Him over their shared silence. Upon learning what’s planned for Him, Elisa hatches a plan to break Him out and keep Him safe. But it’s in their time together in hiding that Elisa finds herself slowly but surely falling in love with Him and wishing for a life together away from the pain of the world.

The heart of this film is a love story between Elisa and The Creature, this connection between two people lost to the world and finding something in each other. Beyond that, though, del Toro builds in a Governmental cover-up, a Russian spy-ring and a tale of loneliness. And all of it fits quite well, you never feel like any of it is tacked on. Rather, each element has its part to play in building into the romance.

The acting is strong and tied into both fantasy and violent elements of the film. Shannon stood out as a strong villain. At the start, he was sadistic, controlled and casually bigoted, making derogatory remarks to both Zelda and The Creature, but after losing two fingers, and the resulting surgery to sew them back on causing in severe pain, he becomes more driven, more deranged and more animalistic. Even going so far as torture and murder to secure The Asset.

Bob Hoffstetler, or Dmitri depending on who he was talking to, allowed the film to examine a neutral ground that enhanced his character with Stuhlberg playing conflicted to a tee. In a film filled with loneliness and silence, having one man working against both sides to save this remarkable creature shows del Toro bringing these solitary people together for a cause.

Working into the same theme of solitary are Zelda and Giles. In a great twist, both act as Elisa’a voice but, being black and gay, neither had a voice of their own. Both were solid, though Spencer seemed to be playing the same role she always does, maybe with more caution around Strickland. But it’s Jenkins who stands out. Giles has spent the last few months struggling as an advertising artist for a company that just wants photographs. With no family to rely on him, and only Elisa to call a friend, his loneliness is one of the more palpable of the film’s which makes his loyalty to Elisa all the stronger as a result.

Elisa, herself, is interesting for a main character in that she doesn’t speak a word. Not unique but definitely different for a love story. Obviously there was a lot of body language and facial expressions to convey Elisa’s feelings and Hawkins does that without an issue but what really stands out is how easily she makes it to root for her without words. Only through her actions do we see just how determined, caring and strong she really is despite her disability.

The second half of this love story is The Creature, easily the most del Toro element of the whole thing. The look and design is reminiscent of Creature From The Black Lagoon, at times friendlier but at others just as frightening and, knowing del Toro, that dichotomy was intentional.

While Elisa saw a sentient and intelligent person behind the scales, he was still very much a creature; whether it was his violent outbursts or his seeming mimicry and actions rather than his own cognitive ones. The decision to keep the bestial elements to Him made the humanising moments stand out all the more .

While I’ll give the edge to Pan’s Labyrinth for Most del Toro Movie Ever Made, this is still absolutely his film. No-one else could devise this oddball of a love story and make it work this well. For all the sci-fi backbone that carries this story, it holds a tenderness and true emotional centre.

The central theme of being alone and different is felt throughout the film with the four leads being mute, gay, black and non-human in a time where being different was seen as being dangerous. By keeping that running throughout, the relationship is explored naturally and without exploitation.

Of course Del Toro keeps several horror influences but the main inspiration here is less Universal Monster and more 40s musicals. The production design and cinematography capture a very soft world. There are moments of harshness, of course, but we see things through Elisa’s eyes and she has this optimistic view of the world that allows the happier moments to shine through, whether it be a little sofa-dance with Giles or a full-blown musical dream sequence reminiscent of the big ballroom showpieces of the 40s. As much as Del Toro has built himself as a director of horror, this is the closest he’s come to being an artist.

The Shape of Water is the love story that we deserve right now. This bizarre, but tender, romance reminds us that different does not mean dangerous. Hawkins, Jones and Jenkins all play into this world of emotions and violence but it’s Guillermo Del Toro who crafts every aspect of this movie and allows himself to paint the picture he’s been trying to for most of his career: the monster movie where the monster gets the girl.

The Shape of Water will be released in UK cinemas on February 14th.

Matthew Wilson

Operating out of Livingston, Scotland, Matthew Wilson has been self-publishing reviews since 2012 - amassing over 1000 and climbing on his personal account at MovieFanCentral- and has produced a number of short films for his Graded Unit at Edinburgh College. Matthew hopes to start writing and directing his own productions one day, having written several unpublished scripts for film and television.

Posted on Feb 10, 2018

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