The Shape of Water is del Toro’s most sure-handed film and his most assured direction. He demonstrates a delighting command of story, characters, and period details. The unfolding of his ‘Beauty and the Beast’ story is flawlessly explored. The film earns its R rating, which itself is something of a surprise. In a world where studios push for as wide an audience and market as possible, aiming for the coveted PG-13 rating. So the spurning of toning things down here is most welcome and it pays off.
The Production: 4.5/5
“If I spoke about it – if I did – what would I tell you? I wonder. Would I tell you about the time? It happened a long time ago, it seems. In the last days of a fair prince’s reign. Or would I tell you about the place? A small city near the coast, but far from everything else. Or, I don’t know… Would I tell you about her? The princess without voice. Or perhaps I would just warn you, about the truth of these facts. And the tale of love and loss. And the monster, who tried to destroy it all.”
Timid and modest Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a woman of routine. Mute since childhood, she communicates using sign language with her closest friends, Giles (Richard Jenkins), her neighbor across the hall, and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), her co-worker at a secret government facility, where they work as cleaners. Elisa’s routine is thrown into delightful chaos when she encounters an astonishing creature, an amphibian man, recently transferred to the facility where she cleans. The creature is abused by government officials and scientists who work to uncover its secrets. She at once forms a fondness and kinship with the outcast, abused, and isolated creature. Learning of its fate, Elisa devises a plan to rescue the captivating amphibian man, finding surprising allies and frightening foes along the way.
The Shape of Water is a wonderful film. A rare film that’s as dark as it is fanciful. Beautifully shot, performed and perfectly scored by Academy Award winner, Alexandre Desplat, who earned one of the film’s 13 Oscar nomination. Guillermo del Toro’s penchant for dark fairytales, and his gifted storytelling and creative visual eye, have long produced beautiful cinematic stories. Even when all the pieces don’t fall comfortably in place in his films (2016’s Crimson Peak is a prime example), the results are always a feast for the eye. With The Shape of Water, the finest of del Toro’s gifts are on display.
Shot with confident movement of the camera, the film is choreographed to perfection capturing charming moments, enhancing moods, and bringing a surprising energy to scenes and sequences. Director and co-writer del Toro has total command of the vision he’s spilling onto the screen. It’s a pleasure to see so confident a hand crafting this fairytale. The film also provides an abundance of detail ravishing the screen. The set and production design is top-notch. And companion to the world built on screen is exquisite costume design and period detail, which support the terrifically mounted production.
The cast is wonderful. Sally Hawkins is an absolute delight as Elisa Esposito. Portraying a mute character who communicates via sign language, her signing is natural and wonderful. Having viewed countless hours of signing videos for children (part of teaching my son to sign pre-speech communication), Hawkins is superb. Her overall performance is filled with a balance of fragile and strong, demure and bold. It is at the meeting point of these opposing forces where she brings Elisa most to life and endears us to the character. Octavia Spencer portrays Zelda Fuller, one of Elisa’s closest friends at the government facility. Spencer’s Zelda is world-wise, strong, and a caring, guiding figure to Elisa. Octavia Spencer has something very special about her. Eminently watchable, she is able to arc her character from emotionally strong but bruised into someone fiercely defiant, witty, and bold. It’s quite something to see the emotional state of her character shift quickly in her expressions. As Elisa’s other close friend, Giles, is Richard Jenkins whoc creates another memorable character. It’s a fine performance filled with little moments of wit and vulnerability, adult embarrassments and triumphs, and Jenkins is perfect throughout.
The villain of the piece of Michael Shannon as Richard Strickland. He’s a menacing figure filling out the government baddie with corners and angles that make him archetypal, but fascinating nonetheless. And finally is Doug Jones who, beneath impressive full-body prosthetic makeup, brings the amphibian man to life. He is excellent. While he doesn’t have the opportunity to surpass the inventive performance he gave in del Toro’s 2006 masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth, he nonetheless makes real and compelling the amphibian who, alongside Sally Hawkins’ Elisa, lives and breathes at the heart of the story.
One of the most impressive element of The Shape of Water is how del Toro creates his characters. Outside the protagonist Elisa and the amphibian man, who have their own stories; every character has their own corner of this world that informs who they are beyond their purpose in the main narrative. Shannon’s villain and his home life, his fingers, and his career aspirations. Jenkins’ Giles and his employment strife with a former boss and his romantically forlorn life, and others. These elements build out a meaningful world of people intersecting in this story, and it’s a pleasure to watch.
3D Rating: NA
Awash with aquatic tones, greeny-blues that cover the walls, color the lighting, and touch a high-level of the overall production design, The Shape of Water’s look is almost a character itself. Framed with its original theatrical ratio of 1.85:1, every inch of the screen if filled with stunning detail.
Dan Laustsen’s Academy Award nominated work for cinematography is wonderful and given the royal treatment for home theaters in high definition. The early 1960s setting calls for muted browns and greys in clothing and the like, and they are complimented with lovely deep black levels and terrific contrast. This is a superb video presentation.
A splendid audio presentation. The 5.1 DTS-Master Audio HD track is generous with ambient moments. Once the rains begin, it is given rise to shine. Dialogue is clean and well-balanced, and Alexandre Desplat’s score positively dances at times. Bass levels run on the lighter side, but in service of the story. The surrounds capture the rains, industrial-sized doors in the government facility, and more very well.
Special Features: 3/5
The available collection of special features touch, albeit in minor depth, most elements of the production. There are two features that a breakdown of the planning and set-up of the opening and the entertaining dance sequence. While a commentary track is sorely missed, the moments with del Toro on set and in the Q&A session provided help peel back a worthwhile look behind the scenes.
- A Fairy Tale for Troubled Times
- Anatomy of a Scene: Prologue
- Anatomy of a Scene: The Dance
- Shaping the Waves: A Conversation with James Jean
- Guillermo del Toro’s Master Class
- Theatrical Trailers
The Shape of Water moves at a brisk pace, mounting a dark and fanciful fairytale, filled with wonderful character moments. Of the fine cast, Hawkins stands out with her expressive and emotive performance. The film is funny, dramatic, delightful, charming, and quite tense at times, while the script’s quirks keep everything on the lighter side.
Some took issue with the love-making between Elisa and the amphibian man. Anyone who has loved science fiction, and the many heartfelt stories in productions, like Star Trek, that explore consensual love between members of different intelligent species, won’t bat an eyelid. And you shouldn’t either. Highly Recommended!