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‘The Shape of Water’ (review by Leyla Mikkelsen)

Produced by Guillermo del Toro, J. Miles Dale
Screenplay by Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Story by Guillermo del Toro
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Starring Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon,
Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones,
Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer


Guillermo del Toro has always had a unique style as a filmmaker, and his love of monsters has continued to give cinema-goers colorful and nuanced portrayals of the creatures and stories he holds dear, ensuring that his films stand out compared to the more one-dimensional and disposable paranormal offerings that tend to populate the contemporary cinematic landscape. While del Toro is no stranger to passion projects as evidenced by a significant number of his previous works, it is clear from the onset that The Shape of Water is the very definition of an unadulterated labor of love.

Much like Jean-Pierre Jeunet has always had his own style in terms of visuals and narratives, it was not until Amélie that he truly managed to engage viewers outside his usual target audience. Jeunet’s 2001 film became a darling among critics and audiences alike because it continued to be true to Jeunet’s aesthetic, however, while he did not compromise the essence of his style in order to execute his vision for Amélie, there was a different kind of depth and sweetness to the story, which resonated exceptionally well with viewers. Similarly, del Toro has had a dedicated following for years, and while he has become increasingly well-known outside dark fantasy and horror circles, just like Jeunet until the release of Amélie, the Mexican auteur has been considered too much of a genre-specific filmmaker to create something that could appeal to a broader audience without compromising his artistic integrity.

Arguably, on paper, The Shape of Water has an undeniably del Toro-esque appeal, as the story can essentially be described as what would happen if the Creature from the Black Lagoon did not have to kidnap his love interest, but instead found reciprocated love. However, while del Toro has dismissed any speculation as to possible connections between his latest effort and his Hellboy films, what truly makes the The Shape of Water work beyond the appeal of the fantastical elements, is that the story at its core is deeply human and relatable. Brimming with a sincere sweetness and maintaining an exquisite tonal balance that serves to perfectly suspend the viewer’s disbelief, most audiences will be hard-pressed to not fall in love with the story and the characters that inhabit it.

Having insisted on casting Sally Hawkins and Michael Shannon for the roles of leading lady and callous villain respectively, it is abundantly clear that their parts were written specifically for them. Hawkins brings her radiance and warmth to the character of Elisa, making it another noteworthy addition to Hawkins’ already impressive résumé of thoroughly engaging performances. Shannon takes another turn as a menacing antagonist, once again reminding us that the intensity he can bring to a character without making it feel like he is merely reprising past turns as other baddies, is an integral part of what makes him such a unique talent.

The supporting characters portrayed by Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins and Michael Stuhlbarg add additional depth to the story and help further build the world of the film. Having once again written the part specifically for the actor, del Toro enables Spencer to deliver her trademark, love-fueled sass in the role of Elisa’s colleague, Zelda, with great potency. Richard Jenkins also takes another turn as a likable, yet insecure and slightly bumbling supporting character in the role of the gay bachelor Elisa shares an apartment with. Lastly, Michael Stuhlbarg impresses as a secretive scientist with a highly compelling character arc. While this could all be considered typecasting, by giving the actors such well-written characters to portray, del Toro has ensured that the cast both individually and as a whole are absolutely pitch perfect for the story, and thereby increase the viewer’s ability to invest in the film.

Needless to say, the visual aspect of the film is as stunning as one has come to expect from del Toro’s hand. The score further emphasizes the sweet, heartfelt tone of the film’s style and narrative, however, do not be fooled; this is still very much a del Toro vessel. Thus, the filmmaker has playfully sprinkled elements of unsettling body horror throughout the film. These elements are genuinely unpleasant, but they never feel out of place and do therefore not detract from the overall sense of the film being an enthralling fairytale for adults.

What Guillermo del Toro has always done well is world-building. His fascination with dark fantasy and his ability to bring the figments of his imagination to life with such vibrancy attests to the greatness of his talent. However, what really makes his films stand out is the amount of heart that is poured into the stories and characters. Easily his strongest film since Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water has more in common with del Toro’s 2006 effort than mere stunning visuals and excellent special effects work, as he once again uses the historical tension of the era wherein the film is set to emphasize its emotional depth; in Pan’s Labyrinth it was post-Civil War Spain, here it is Cold War era America. This adds an additional sense of gravitas to the characters’ motivations and emotions, which further emphasizes that sometimes the strange and unusual is in fact deeply human rather than monstrous, just as humans are often the real monsters.

Verdict: 10 out of 10


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