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The Shape of Water – film review

January 25, 2018


A mesmerizing masterpiece.

Reviewed on Sunday 21st January 2018

Directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Screenplay by Del Toro and VanessaTaylor, story by Del Toro. Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer and Doug Jones. Running time: 123 mins.

A mute cleaning lady working in a Cold War government research facility falls in love with a human-like amphibian creature being held captive for scientific study. When the creature is earmarked for vivisection, she enlists the help of her friends to free him in a daring break-out attempt.

Having been an avid admirer of Guillermo Del Toro’s work since the release of his Mexican-lensed feature debut Cronos in 1992, it is with eager anticipation I look forward to each new Del Toro offering. His films can be brutal and dream-like, darkly humorous and, some might say – downright weird. But if nothing else, they are consistently mesmerizing. Indeed, if I had to sum up the experience of watching any of his films – in one word, it would be – captivated. I find it impossible to take my eyes off the screen – for even one second.

Del Toro’s portrayal of the monstrous and otherworldly as being sympathetic in the face of human cruelty is a signature theme which he revisits from time to time (most notably in Pan’s Labyrinth) – a theme which he again explores here with The Shape of Water. His protagonists are generally societal outcasts we can all relate to and whose motivations we fully understand and here Sally Hawkins delivers this on-point and seemingly without effort. Considering her character – Elisa Esposito – is essentially mute for virtually the entire running time, she does a superb job in utilizing this potential limitation to her advantage. The on-screen chemistry between she and the gill man is palpable and Hawkins is a crucial part of this. Indeed, while the idea of interspecies romance may seem like it could potentially be somewhat problematic to present convincingly (and, well, tastefully) – Del Toro and his pitch-perfect cast succeed brilliantly in selling it. And prosthetic character actor and long-time Del Toro collaborator Doug Jones again delivers another finely-nuanced performance under impressive make-up – generating enormous sympathy for the enigmatic creature. The supporting cast is equally as strong – with Richard Jenkins delivering a stand-out turn as Elisa’s hollywood musical-loving neighbor and confidant. But it is Michael Shannon as Colonel Strickland, the primary antagonist – who essays a presence one simply can’t look away from. Despite the volatile Strickland’s knee-jerk brutality, Shannon is still able to generate a considerable amount of empathy for his character. He is a man of the system who feels just as unfulfilled in his life as Elisa – but his frustration manifests in more explosively violent ways. We may be horrified by his actions, but we at least understand him as a person and are privy to his motivations.

There’s no doubt the look of this film is nothing short of gorgeous, featuring lush cinematography by previous Del Toro lenser Dan Lausten (Mimic, Crimson Peak) imbuing the film with that signature Del Toro texture we come to expect. With production design by Paul D. Austerberry, art direction by Nigel Churcher, set decoration by Jeffrey A. Melvin and Shane Vieau and costume design by Luis Seqeira contributing enormously to the realizing of a highly-detailed, very specific – almost hyper-real re-imagining of the early 1960s. And Del Toro’s extensive use of floating camera moves throughout lends the film an all-pervasive dream-like quality which perfectly matches the fairy tale tone of the piece.

Despite the American setting, the film does very much have a European feel – particularly with regard to scenes of frank sexuality and Alexandre Desplat’s accordion-centric score. Indeed, considering the way the world of Sally Hawkins’ character is presented here – it would come as no surprise if the inherent whimsy of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie was a significant touchstone for Del Toro’s development of the material.

The Shape of Water is perhaps Del Toro’s finest achievement to date which, considering the high standard of his output so far, makes it a must-see for fans of     his work. And to those who are less familiar – I definitely recommend you add this to your ‘to watch’ lists (which, hopefully, come Oscar night – with its 13 nominations, including best picture – everyone will be doing).

5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Viewed at the Wallis Cinemas Mitcham, Adelaide, January 21st 2018

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

From → film reviews

  1. Colin permalink

    Can’t wait to see this.

    Saw Annihilation today and wow! Too bad that you guys will have to see it on Netflix due to Paramount selling the international rights to the streaming giant. Can’t wait to read your review.



    • gregory moss permalink

      Cheers Colin. Yeah – still fuming we won’t get to see Annihilation on the big screen. I’ll have to wait till it hits Blu-ray to see it now. But I’ll be first in line to buy a copy. I’ll be keen to hear your thoughts on The Shape of Water. Its Oscar wins (Best Picture, Best Director) – were well deserved.


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