The Shape of Water Review

The Shape of Water (2017) Movie Review by Stephen McLaughlin


Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writers: Guillermo del Toro (screenplay by), Vanessa Taylor (screenplay by)
Stars: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins

As I write this this review it has just been announced that “The Shape of Water” has been nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress (Sally Hawkins), Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer), Best Supporting Actor (Richard Jenkins), Best Director (Guillermo Del Toro), Best Original Screenplay (Written by Vanessa Taylor), Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Production Design and the Best Film Editing. All of the above by the way are very difficult to argue with for consideration at this years Academy Awards.

“The Shape of Water” in my opinion can only be described as a brilliantly weird story set in a top secret research facility in the 1950s, a lonely janitor Elisa (Sally Hawkins) forms a unique relationship with an amphibious creature (Doug Jones) that is being held in captivity. Going back a few months ago I described the trailer like a ‘Monster of the Week’ episode of ‘The X-Files’. Now having seen the movie I still feel that way. The story is a very simple but strange tale of Elisa falling in love with this creature and the amphibian having the same feelings for her. Everything around the storyline is what makes the film so special. Yes the story is uniquely weird and I enjoyed that element of it. It’s classic Guillermo del Toro here we are talking about, who else can make a story like that work and be accepted. But going back to what I was saying, everything else around the story is what will make this movie stand out against the rest.

The cast and in particular Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon and Richard Jenkins are amazing. Hawkins is an absolute joy to watch as the lonely janitor who works closely with Zelda (Octavia Spencer) in the facility and although lives on her own spends most of her time with Giles (Richard Jenkins) and I will speak about both these characters shortly. Elisa to me is a strong woman in the sense that she understands what is happening in the facility towards the creature is wrong and knows that something has to be done to save it. Watching Hawkins interactions with the amphibian is interesting and sweet and you can see the challenges for the actress who because of the character being a mute and having to interact with a actor in a lizard suit is using her expressions and emotions more in a physically way than normal, you can be excused for thinking…this is weird. But honestly once you have watched this movie and every scene Hawkins is in you will understand why she has been nominated for Best Actress. The character has an inbuilt confidence about her towards the authorities and not in an obnoxious way, but a quiet confidence that although they see her as an inferior, which is probably due to her inability to speak and more prejudicially because of her occupation, she regards herself if not an equal, superior in a moral sense. Elisa is such a likeable character and Sally Hawkins portrays the role brilliantly.

Octavia Spencer as Zelda Fuller is somewhat the moral compass of the film. Riding high on the back of her amazing portrayal of Dorothy Vaughan in Hidden Figures the Academy Award Winning Actress (Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in The Help) again performs brilliantly and I was interested to see what kind of a character Zelda would be. She is probably Elisa’s best friend and work colleague. Both of them stick together in what is predominantly a male environment and have each other’s back. Zelda sees the good in Elisa and even when Elisa’s plan is in full flow and Zelda’s conscious flits back and forth between what is right and what is illegal, you know she is a good person and Spencer does well to portray that weight on her shoulders. Don’t get me wrong, Octavia Spencer is limited in her screen time and although I would have enjoyed a fuller role you just have to accept and enjoy her presence while you can.

Michael Shannon as the antagonistic Richard Strickland and leading the operation for the military is such a deep and intense character. Shannon continues to surprise me in his investment in his role and even though you are suppose to despise this character you can’t help wanting more when he isn’t on screen. Strickland is so invested in his career that his family life just appears to go through the motions with little interaction between him and his wife and kids. Bizarrely after a struggle with the amphibian, Strickland loses a couple of fingers, luckily found on the floor by Elisa but unfortunately not in time and although his digits are attached back onto his hand as the film progresses you can see (and thankfully not smell) his fingers becoming more bent out of shape and darkening. This to me illustrates the maniacal side of Shannon’s character, which I actually found rather amusing.

I know Richard Jenkins as more of a comedy actor and amazingly didn’t recognise at first playing the lonely Giles. As I previously mentioned, Giles and Elisa spend quite a bit of time together and chat about their days, although obviously Giles is the one doing the talking. Both of them although aren’t romantically connected share a common bond and companionship and spend most of their time together after work hours. Jenkins transformation physically is what through me off and his unique speech patterns for the character manage to mask the actor even further. He is brilliant in this role and really matches the benchmark of acting alongside Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer and Michael Shannon.

If there is one thing you are guaranteed with Director / Writer Guillermo Del Toro, that is a unique storyline. 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth is a great example of an excellent storyline that invests in the emotion and it’s characters. Del Toro is one of the best at this, regardless of how strange the plot may be he manages to draw you into his fantasy film and you can’t help but enjoy it. I am so glad he is on board to write and direct Pinocchio project as I think will be amazing and right down his street. Vanessa Taylor worked on the screenplay with Del Toro on “The Shape of Water” and looks like the perfect collaborator on this film. Taylor’s talents cannot be ignored here as although Del Toro’s name is more familiar, she is already in the process of working on next years (2019) Aladdin with Guy Ritchie and screenplay writer John August. Taylor’s previous work writing is mostly in television and most noticeably on HBO’s Game of Thrones and an excellent choice for this movie.

One of the most noticeable factors in “The Shape of Water” is the visuals. Sometimes the performances and direction can overshadow this and not deliberately but it is one of the first things the audience will intake and appreciate. The look of this film is both stunning and luscious in ever little detail. I can’t help but appreciate that the larger percentage of the look of this movie is practical effects and the Cinematography captures the look and feel to this perfectly, especially in the top secret facility that is enclosed with restrictive light and colours of green and rusty yellow are a common theme in this movie. Alexandre Desplat’s score also compliments the film in it’s eeriness and Desplat totally absorbs and understands what is required to give this unique film a unique sound. In his own words he said mentioned that melody he wrote for the opening scene is actually made of waves. Desplat admitted that he did not do that on purpose, but by being completely immersed in the love and the water elements, he wrote a melody that plays arpeggios like waves. Wow that is just amazing.

Overall “The Shape of Water” is a stunning piece of film and will dominate the Academy Awards. On a personal level though, it took me by surprise on how I felt going into the movie and what I got out of it in the end. The performances from the cast are breathtaking, the direction and story are what we now expect from Guillermo Del Toro but that doesn’t mean there are a few surprises on the journey. This is a film that is a must see and I can’t recommend this enough.

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