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THE SHAPE OF WATER gets 8.5/10 Heart of the sea

Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Starring Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Michael Shannon

8.5/10

In Baltimore in the 1960s a mute janitor, Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins), starts to form a friendship with one of the unique specimens at the top secret government lab at which she is cleaning. Eliza discovers that the strange and inhuman amphibious man (Doug Jones) is capable of understanding and mimicking her sign language, and despite its apparent fierce visage it is kind and gentle towards her. When the sadistic head of the project (Michael Shannon) decides that a post mortem vivisection of the creature would be the quickest way to achieve results to further the space race (and show humans how they could adapt to hostile environments), Eliza decides to attempt to rescue the creature. However, how does one mute janitor stand against the American government?

The Shape of Water sees director Guillermo del Toro turn to familiar ground, albeit it a slightly unfamiliar way. That combination of horror, with a tinge of fable or fairy tale, is common in the director’s work, but here that balance is certainly different, as he down plays the horror elements in favour of the others. The result is certainly one of his most rewarding and enjoyable pieces in years.

Beneath the surface of The Shape of Water there are numerous rich thematic undercurrents. That is more than just a terrible aquatic pun, although it is certainly that, it is genuinely the way this film is constructed. On top there is that strange and quirky fairy tale love story, but look deeper and there are a vast array of themes each asserting their own irresistible tidal pull. Look at the treatment of minorities (gay, black, disabled) and you are swept along on one subversive current showing those “others” fighting to assert their place. Notice the nostalgia for old film, and you are swept into a tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood, even as the setting acknowledges the power of the television that is rising in dominance of the period. Examine a bible quote and you are yanked into a debate on rigid religious and political dogma versus international humanism. There are a plethora of themes in here, yet del Toro melds them into a cohesive whole, leaving it to the audience as to how deeply they wish to engage with each. So what should feel overwhelming and tonally at odds with itself, instead, in the hands of a master director becomes harmonious and something magical.

Which is really the crux of The Shape of Water, that feeling of magic. Everything is shaped to bring that to the screen, from the story, to the careful choice of colour palette in set and costuming, to the movement of the camera in a deliberate and sweeping fashion reminiscent of that aforementioned Golden Age of cinema (with a very vivid nod to the musical). Del Toro has always had a touch of the phantasmagorical about his work, but he’s usually turned it more towards the horror genre (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, The Devil’s Backbone, Crimson Peak). Here, although it is not entirely removed from the rest of his oeuvre (heck, it’s not even his first fish-man played by Doug Jones brought to screen), this is certainly him at his most romantic.

As the central character, Elisa (or “the princess without voice” as she is initially introduced), Hawkins (Paddington) gives a wonderful and mostly mute performance. She conveys everything she needs to with the tilt of her head, a lightness in her step, or the steely glare of her eyes. When she does get to give a speech, it is through sign, and delivered with a fire and intensity that would do Mel Gibson’s William Wallace or George C. Scott’s General George Patton proud. Conversely Michael Shannon (Boardwalk Empire, Man of Steel) does a marvellous job of making audiences hate his character in just a few words, and it’s a tribute to his ability of as an actor that he is able to build from there to make something truly villainous. Caught between these two is the strange ephemeral aquatic creature. Here Doug Jones (Hellboy, Star Trek: Discovery) once again turns his physicality into something alien and otherworldly.

A modern fairy tale with dark sensibilities, The Shape of Water is really a delight to watch, but it is also a film that has a lot going on beneath the surface, and tempts you to plunge into its unknown depths. Worth taking the dive.

DAVID O’CONNELL

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