AFI Fest Review: Guillermo del Toro’s ‘The Shape of Water’ is a Gorgeous, Rapturous Love Story

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The Shape of Water

One doesn’t have to dig too deep to understand that Guillermo del Toro absolutely loves monsters in every possible shape and form. Over the past couple years, the Mexican auteur has had a touring art exhibit, At Home with Monsters, highlighting his personal collection of monster memorabilia. It should only be fitting that del Toro would find a way to turn his love affair with monsters and monster movies into a full blown romance film, and he’s done just that with his latest film, The Shape of Water. His most mature film in the English language, The Shape of Water is a different kind of love story, granted, but it’s one that’s striking in its visuals and moving in its emotional content even if some of the story beats are rather predictable.

In 1962, Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mute woman living alone in an apartment above a movie theater. Before going to work at secret government facility where she cleans in the middle of the night, Elisa follows a specific routine that involves preparing her lunch and bringing food to her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) before boarding the bus to work. At work, Elisa spends her shifts working beside her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), the two communicate through sign language. Even though Elisa is incapable of uttering a word aloud, mum’s the word at Elisa’s place of employment and things are about to get even more tight-lipped when a new government agent, Strickland (Michael Shannon), enters the facility, bringing with him a mysterious and top secret creature. Studying this creature is Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a kindly and professional scientist. Through her duties cleaning, Elisa is able to foster a relationship with the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) who is being subjected to cruel experiments. With the tensions of the Cold War mounting, Strickland is sure that the biological makeup of the Amphibian Man will give America an edge over the Soviets, driving the motivated government agent to deplorable acts. Elisa and her intimate connection to the mysterious aquatic creature drive this meek woman to formulate a plan to liberate the Amphibian Man from his unwitting role in escalating Cold War.

The Shape of Water is buoyed by the phenomenal performance by Sally Hawkins, who without uttering a word brings to life all the heart and emotion of del Toro’s love story. The character’s journey in the screenplay by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor sees Elisa shed her layers of loneliness and meekness and grows to become more assertive and defiant, and Hawkins sells every aspect of this character’s journey. All the heart, the fear, the wonder that occurs within The Shape of Water is embodied in the visage of Sally Hawkins, who also get a couple of moments to present some impressive dancing skills.

Surrounding Sally Hawkins and further elevating the film is the wonderful supporting cast. Richard Jenkins continues to be one of the best character actors working today as Elisa’s neighbor, a struggling commercial artist whose homosexuality he keeps as a closely guarded secret due to the social mores of the era. Jenkins is able to infuse a level of humor and empathy into the film that few of his peers could achieve. The same could be said of the reliable Octavia Spencer, who gets a majority of the film’s funnier lines and her impeccable delivery ensures that not a single witty remark falls flat. Michael Stuhlbarg plays one of the film’s more intriguing characters, a man trapped between various sides of this ongoing struggle for influence in the world. Once again, as he’s proven time and time before, Michael Shannon is just a force of nature. His Strickland is menacing, chauvinistic, and represents the worst of America’s attitudes during the Cold War and beyond. He is the true monster in this monster movie, and his intensity and callousness will cause you squirm in your seat.

As much as The Shape of Water is resonant on an emotional level, the film is just as striking its visual composition. Every location has a texture to it, from Elisa’s apartment to the dank laboratory where the Amphibian Man is experimented upon. Dan Laustsen’s cinematography brings these locations to life with vibrant color in some locales and dim, ominous lighting in others. The artistry on display ensures that you’ll be enveloped into this world of wonders. Going even further, The Shape of Water also boasts some fantastic makeup effects for the Amphibian Man, once again allowing Doug Jones to be entirely recognizable as the aquatic creature.

The Shape of Water is a lush, moving love story that sees a softer, tenderer side of Guillermo del Toro without sacrificing those qualities that make him one of the most unique filmmakers of his generation. At times, the film can be terrifying and unsettling. At others, warm and lovely. It takes a special talent to blend these disparate styles without jarring the audience, and del Toro does just that with The Shape of Water. In the past, del Toro reserved his English language films to be more of the pulpy, pop variety and reserving his more mature works for his Spanish language films. Guillermo del Toro has bucked that trend with The Shape of Water, which still features del Toro’s love of creature features while retaining an emotional and intellectual core that will leave your heart swimming.

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