Guillermo del Toro has always been a visionary director, but with The Shape of Water he has taken that several notches further and crafted one of the most beautiful and surreal films in years. The Shape of Water though is also a little different from what we’ve seen from the director as he looks to explore new genre territory. It’s difficult though to pinpoint exactly which genre del Toro is firmly aiming for here, because while the film is quite clearly a love story with a sci-fi/fairy tale element to it, there are so many themes going on in the film that it almost feels like this is Mexican filmmaker’s tribute to everything, including the magic of Hollywood itself.
The essence of the film though is actually quite simplistic. Set during the cold war at the height of tension between the US and Russia, The Shape of Water is a love story between a mute women, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), who feels isolated by a very prejudiced society, who relates to and falls in love with another person (Doug Jones) who is going through the same oppressive struggles. Except only that said love interest happens to be an amphibian creature.
Along the way, the film explores issues of race, sexual orientation, liberation and even tries to pay tribute to some of classic Hollywood films. What starts out as a simple premise, turns into a very complex film that tries to connect with you on so many levels.
And that is what makes del Toro’s direction in this movie so incredible, as he pretty much pulls off all of these different and complex plot threads without overwhelming the viewer. In fact, he does quite the opposite, by introducing you to the film’s different layers bit by bit and tying its different themes together almost poetically.
And poetry is the perfect word to describe the film in many ways as del Toro uses the camera to artfully move around its different scenes and pull them together to flow nicely. You can tell that every camera angle is not just framed around the current scene, but ties into the previous and next to keep that poetic motion throughout. Obviously central to this beautiful visual poetry is the theme of water, which transcends the scenes in various ways and indeed water is never far away from any part of the movie.
Much like any true piece of poetry is dependent on rhythm, so too The Shape of Water boasts another magic trick in the exceptional score by Alexandre Desplat. From the very first frame, the music sets the scene and beautifully accompanies the movie, from establishing the era and mood of the film to the way it translates the characters’ emotions. It also pairs up magnificently with del Toro’s artful camera work in being equally inventive and explorative at the same time. It is a truly masterful score that is arguably just as important to the film working as well as it does as del Toro’s direction itself.
Hand in hand with the music, though significantly less vital, is the excellent production design and visual effects that bring the world and characters to light. This is especially true when the film breaks into a black and white song and dance number that merges almost seamlessly into its colour palette, which actually feels a lot like water. It’s a little silly to describe it as such, but makes sense when you’re watching the movie and becomes very evident when you see scenes that take place underwater or are surrounded by water and they feel and look the same as those scenes outside of it.
These things are needed though, because while there is still plenty of spoken dialogue through the film – thanks to excellent turns by Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg and Richard Jenkins – the two leads in Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones can both obviously not speak (at least outside of sign language), so the camera and music are required to do much of the work. It’s a beautiful symmetry that ensures the absence of verbal dialogue is never felt and you can easily tell exactly what the characters are feeling at any given point in time. Hawkins, in particular, does a superb job of expressing herself through her mannerisms and expressions.
As a film, not everything is perfect and much of this perhaps lies with the fact that at times it is trying to do too much. While del Toro’s direction is fantastic throughout, there are still some scenes which feel like they exist for the purpose of making a political or personal statement for one of the film’s many themes rather than adding anything to the bigger story. In fact, you could remove them entirely and the main story and the way you feel about the film’s different characters probably won’t change at all.
At the same time, the love story and the way it is told can leave you feeling a little uncomfortable. Some of del Toro’s perverse erotic fantasies seem to be at play here as he portrays the love Elise and the amphibian creature have for one another in ways that would’ve probably been more effective if they weren’t so explicit. It’s a minor personal gripe for scenes which are again, otherwise beautifully shot, but wholly unnecessary. The film works just as powerfully without it and you can’t help but feel that this was just del Toro being a little self-indulgent here.
It’s easy to see why The Shape of Water is one of the most lauded films from last year and is up for so many awards, though especially around del Toro’s direction and Desplat’s magnificent score. It truly is a visual masterpiece and even if there are a couple of unnecessary story beats here and there, it is a wonderful film that is certainly worth watching.
Last Updated: January 23, 2018