Review | The Shape of Water

January 17, 2018 (Last updated: January 20, 2018)
Alix Turner 1
Film, Film Reviews

The Shape of Water

Director Guillermo del Toro
Writer(s) Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor and others
Rating  15
Release Date  28 January 2018 (UK)

What’s this?

The Shape of Water is a what-if story…

What if The Creature from the Black Lagoon found love?

What if Beauty and the Beast were set in Cold War USA?

What’s it all about?

It’s about people’s differences: they can come between people, or bring them together; they can be ignored or celebrated. It’s about both bigotry and loneliness that result from what makes individuals different from each other.

And it’s about acknowledging people who are generally ignored. They have feelings they want to express too, and their own ways of doing so.

No, I meant the plot!

Ah, simple…

A mute cleaning lady, Elisa (played by Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky, Paddington), works at a government building. It’s not clear what the main function is there, but one laboratory is of particular interest. An unusual creature has been found, and brought back in the hope of discovering something that will give the USA some edge in the Cold War or the space race. The lab’s scientist considers the creature to be a specimen; the security boss calls it an “asset”. But the cleaner forms a connection with the creature, which deepens as they begin to communicate, and strengthens as they discover how risky his situation is.


Who else is in The Shape of Water?

The creature, “asset”, or “Amphibian Man” is played by Doug Jones. He was one of the Gentlemen in the famous Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, “Hush”. He later also had roles in Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth (also by Del Toro). Yes, prosthetics seem to be his thing.

One of the excellent secondary parts is played by Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under, Cabin in the Woods); he provides opening and closing narration, and plays Elisa’s neighbor and friend, Giles.

Octavia Spencer plays Elisa’s close work friend, Zelda, with just the same warmth as she showed in Hidden Figures.

These individuals are all perfectly cast; but none more so than Michael Shannon as the snarling security boss, Strickland, very like the General Zod he portrayed in Man of Steel.

Sounds great, but doesn’t Del Toro make weird horror films?

That’s a bit simplistic, but I know where you’re coming from. Not all of his films have been “weird” (The Devil’s Backbone was almost literary, I would say); and The Shape of Water is certainly not a horror. In terms of genre, what we have here is an old-fashioned creature feature blended with a romantic period drama. Del Toro is also known for the style he applies to his period films, and we certainly have that here, though mostly in a bright and confident way, not dark or creepy like the other films I’ve mentioned.

So I’ll like it?

Well, fascinating and elegant though the film is, The Shape of Water is not for everyone. I’d say it’s one of Del Toro’s most accessible films yet (closely followed by Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark), but it still has his signature scrawled all the way across it. What I mean is that as well as anticipating beautifully designed monsters and period style, you should also not be surprised to find moments of acute violence. They’re brief and (reasonably) appropriate, but in clear contrast to most of the film.

Similarly, there is not much subtlety to the characters or themes they are portraying. For example, a good deal of Strickland’s dialogue neatly demonstrates bigotry from various angles; yet the bigotry theme is unnecessarily reinforced with a moment of racism so blatant it’s almost a caricature. But it’s kind of a fable, so perhaps subtlety isn’t that important. I think I would have been more swept away if it hadn’t jarred here and there in that way, though.

And didn’t you say something about loneliness earlier?

I must say this is one area where subtlety was achieved. It only dawned on me as the film settled in my head overnight: all the main characters had either no-one to talk to, or no-one who would listen. It even took a lot for Elisa’s two friends to pay attention to her. They mostly took advantage of her muteness by treating her as a sounding board.

It was in this portrayal of individual and hidden angst that the writing really shone.

Guillermo Del Toro… Didn’t we see him in The Last Jedi a few weeks ago?

No. That was Benecio.

Don’t make that mistake again; you’ll never live it down.


Go and watch it, first chance you get. But try to go when the cinema is not riddled with talkers. You don’t want this spell broken.

And if you’re not familiar with Del Toro, give The Devil’s Backbone a try next.

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