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Review: The Shape of Water

December 8, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Set in 1962, at the height of America’s Cold War paranoia, Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a magical fantasy romance that tells of the unique love between Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaner who works at a secretive government laboratory, and a mysterious sea monster (Doug Jones) who is being held at the facility.

Eliza lives above an old movie theatre, bonding with her kind older neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) over their shared love of old musicals, and speaking through sign language.  She is lonely and sees a kindred spirit in the creature, as they find ways to silently communicate with each other through body language and music.

But when she discovers that the fierce Agent Strickland (Michael Shannon), who is in charge of the facility, intends to have the creature destroyed lest it fall into the wrong hands, she hatches a plan to rescue her newfound love.  She enlists the help of her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who interprets Eliza’s sign language and does the talking for her at work, as well as understanding researcher Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who works at the facility and also wants to see the creature’s life spared.

Shot in Toronto, with the Elgin standing in for the old theatre below Eliza’s apartment, the production design is just as gorgeous as we have come to expect from a Guillermo Del Toro film.  During TIFF, I had the opportunity to screen the film at the Elgin, which just made the experience of seeing it all the more special, with the audience bursting into applause when the same theatre we were in came onscreen.  The visual palate of the film is further enhanced by the entrancing cinematography and its ingenious uses of colours like green and red, which add deeper meaning to the story.  Alexandre Desplat’s score provides a lovely accompaniment to the visuals, backed up by a selection of old standards on the soundtrack.

The entire cast does great work, led by a mesmerizing near-silent performance from Sally Hawkins, and great work from Doug Jones as the creature, who is brought to life almost entirely through makeup and practical effects.  Despite the fact that she is a human woman and he is a sea monster, we really come to believe and sympathize with their relationship, and this is in large part thanks to the brilliance of their performances, with Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones sharing highly emotive and surprisingly sensitive chemistry together that is really wonderful to watch.

The supporting roles are equally memorable.  Richard Jenkins does lovely and sympathetic work here, in a moving subplot that touches on how different unconventional relationships have been stigmatized in the past, in a way that mirrors the central love story between Eliza and the creature.  Michael Shannon crafts another terrifyingly villainous role, and Michael Stuhlbarg adds some nice shades of grey to his character, with Octavia Spencer providing both moral support and comic relief.

The fact that the film takes place in 1962 adds deeper meaning to the story.  While the decade would later give birth to radical social change, it was still in its infancy at the time, with segregation still two years away from being fully abolished under the signing of the Civil Rights Act, and the sexual revolution and gay rights movement having not fully taken ground yet.  The film’s main message is about accepting different types of relationships, with the story drawing allegorical comparisons to both interracial and same sex marriage.  It’s worth noting that the former was only made legal five years after the story takes place in 1967, with the latter not being legally recognized across the United States until 2015.

Through these themes, it’s clear that there is a deeper statement about societal change and accepting differences that Guillermo Del Toro is trying to make with The Shape of Water.  While the film often has the grandeur and sweeping feel of a classic romance, it balances this with elements of a monster movie and dark espionage thriller, and the film also breaks taboos in its own ways with some nasty violence and surprisingly graphic scenes of sexuality.  It almost plays like the cinema of the 1940s and 1950s colliding with the boundary-pushing movies that started being made in the later years of the 1960s.

This is a deeply personal film for Guillermo Del Toro, playing like a culmination of the thematic and stylistic touches of his earlier work, weaving together the fairy tale elements and social commentary of his earlier Pan’s Labyrinth, with the creature work and elaborate set design of his Hellboy films, and the sweeping gothic romance of his previous film Crimson Peak.  Providing a loving ode to both old monster movies and classic musicals, The Shape of Water is a moving, beautifully made and brilliantly acted love letter to cinema itself.  It’s magical.

A version of this review was originally published during the Toronto International Film Festival.

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