With just twelve short days until the pinnacle of the cinematic calendar, the 90th Academy Awards, all of this year’s most celebrated motion pictures are coming thick and fast though the screens of British movie theatres. With a remarkable thirteen Oscar nominations to its name, Guillermo Del Toro’s latest offering, The Shape Of Water, arrived with much hype and anticipation, with those in the know slating the Best Picture award to be a two horse race between it and Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Anyone who read my review of Three Billboards will know that my reaction to the critical darling wasn’t as positive as the general consensus, would The Shape Of Water follow suit, or would it blow me away like a true Best Picture contender should do?
I’m ecstatic to report that, yes, it did indeed, blow me away. Set in 1960’s Baltimore, The Shape Of Water tells the story of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute government facility janitor who embarks on a fantastical relationship with a mystical merman type creature (played by Doug Jones) who connects with her on a deep and profound level. Despite its decidedly ‘out there’ premise, the stunning genius of The Shape Of Water is that it feels like classic, beautiful, enchanting old fashioned cinema. At its most basic level, it is a love story that is brought to life through exquisite cinematography and perfect mise en scene. Every single frame is rich and luscious, a work of art in its own right, no surprise given the film’s visionary director.
There is a fairytale like quality to the central romance of the plot that evokes nostalgic memories of works like Beauty And The Beast, with a thrilling and emotive escape and rescue narrative akin to something like E.T.. What takes The Shape Of Water to a whole other level, though, is the unexpected and remarkably visceral level of violence that remains a constant throughout. Not only does the picture contain some very affecting gore, it also doesn’t shy away from more mature elements like sex, nudity and strong language. The beautiful, unique, enchanting aesthetic combined with the unexpectedly dark and at times down right horrific plot points make for something truly special and unique.
From the sweeping score to the little odes to classic Hollywood to the more overt fairytale nature of the love between a woman and a mystical creature, the film is filled with touches of magic dust that a sprinkled across the narrative. Even when it is at its most dramatic and science-fiction based, there is a level of the fantastical that helps to maintain an air of delightful whimsy, even in the face of extreme violence or extreme irregularity. You might not think that an inter species love story set around the high suspicion era of the Cold War is something that you could become deeply invested in, but you would be wrong! The beauty of the picture combined with the masterful work both on and off the screen make The Shape Of Water one of the most unexpected yet effective romantic dramas of the year, perhaps even the decade. In a time where movies tend to have to stick to a certain type of grit and realism to achieve Oscar success, it is wonderful to see something so surreal, so fantastical, so filled with escapism.
The film is lead by a captivating, silent performance by the incredible Sally Hawkins. To carry a film in the palm of your hand without the power of speech to rely on is a remarkable thing, and Hawkins, though diminutive in stature, succeeds in being the biggest on screen presence even in the company of a literal sea monster. I find it really interesting that Hawkins and Frances McDormand are the two front runners for this year’s Best Actress prize. Whilst McDormand harnesses all the power of her speech in a crackling, abrasive Three Billboards screenplay, Hawkins provides a masterclass in physicality and micro expression that arguably scream louder than any line of dialogue could.
Octavia Spencer as Elisa’s cleaning colleague Zelda gives an entertaining and endearing performance as something of an audience surrogate, sharp witted and dedicated to helping in the scheme despite not fully understanding the extent of danger that is unfolding. Richard Jenkins as Giles, Elisa’s close friend and neighbour, has a small scale but incredibly important and poignant role to play. An ageing gay man dealing with his own contemporary troubles, he stands out as an interesting comparison with the unnamed creature. Both males in Elisa’s life who share special and profound relationships with her.
If I were to level any kind of criticism at the film, it would be in the characterisation of the key antagonist, Colonel Richard Strickland, played by Michael Shannon. Whilst Shannon is requisitely menacing and evil, there isn’t quite enough beyond the surface of the character to give any reason for him being so. A cardboard cutout villain isn’t something that usually irritates me enough to point out, but amidst the brilliant nuance of the rest of the picture, it did stand out.
Overall, The Shape Of Water is a stunning film that defies all logic to be one of the most enjoyable, endearing and original cinematic experiences of the year. It feels like many of the fantastical, adventure filled films from your childhood (Free Willy mixed with Edward Scissorhands being an uncomfortable but valid comparison!), but possesses an air of such expert craft and maturity that a premise so susceptible to being silly, instead feels effortlessly, captivatingly serious and dramatic. Magical, mysterious, elegant, exquisite.