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USA/Canada 2017
Directed by
Guillermo del Toro
123 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

The Shape Of Water

Synopsis; At a top secret research facility in Baltimore in the 1960s, a mute cleaner, Eliza (Sally Hawkins), forms a relationship with an amphibious creature that is being held in captivity.

Guillermo del Toro’s latest film owes much to 'Beauty And The Beast', the famous fable by 18th century author Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, given classic form by Jean Cocteau's wonderful 1946 screen adaptation.  Although it does not possess the poignant romanticism that has seen Leprince’s story filmed many times it is nevertheless an extraordinary effort, a superb example of filmic imagining flawlessly melding fantasy and reality much in the manner of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s retro-futuristic work, notably with Marc Caro in Delicatessen (1991), even to the point of recycling that film’s climactic water-filled bathroom scene. Production designer Paul D. Austerberry and cinematographer Dan Laustsen’s work is breathtakingly effective, a brilliant synthesis of filmic styling from the 1930s to ‘60s.

Also strong are the performances. Sally Hawkins played a disabled woman in her previous film, Maudie (2016) and the danger was that she would recycle her technique in this film. Happily, her Elisa is a completely different character, convincingly conveyed by Hawkins without the aid of dialogue.  Richard Jenkins’ gives an empathetic performance as Elisa’s closeted gay neighbour and even Octavia Spencer is winning in her stereotypical role as Elisa’s black friend, Zelda, with Michael Stuhlbarg bringing up the rear as a sympathetic scientist.  It is Michael Shannon however, who in a powerhouse performance galvanizes proceedings as the kind of villain you know is going to get his comeuppance – a patriotic. Christian bully who torments the captured creature for his own satisfaction (the creature is played by Doug Jones who played the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006)

The script, by del Toro with Vanessa Taylor, is ambitiously broad-ranging but perhaps a little too much so. It’s hard to mix romantic fantasy with social philosophy, whimsy with Dr Strangelove-ish goings-on and some pruning and shaping might have given the film more emotional grip.  Thus, Elisa’s muteness is apparently the result of an incident in her childhood that left her scarred. These scars become important at the film’s end but it is far from clear if this is just coincidental or part of some metaphysical bond. More significantly, the relationship between she and the creature is given a too literal physicality that belies the film’s fairy-tale opening (and its poetic closing) and throws it  off-kilter (witness a subsequent "girl chat" between Elisa and Zelda).

Even so, The Shape of Water is a film well worth seeing on the big screen. The cast is top-drawer, their performances compelling and it looks fabulous. a combination which gave won it the 2018 Best Picture Oscar and del Toro  the Best Director Oscar. 




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