The Shape of Water is a not so much a movie that you watch, rather it is one that you savour. Guillermo Del Toro is a director with a clear vision of what he wants his movies to be and every scene is a film student’s dream. His movies are visual feasts and with The Shape of Water, he has recreated the 1960s cold war era with every detail of colour, visual design and costume. However, much as I loved it and lapped up every minute, part of me wishes it was less homage and more original.
The plot can be summed up as The Monster from The Black Lagoon crossed with Splash, with a dash of golden-era Hollywood musical and Free Willy.
Set in Baltimore in the 1960s, Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mute who works the night shift as a cleaner in a high-security underground government facility. Alongside her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), they are the invisible workers mopping out the toilets and, when needed, blood off the floors.
Elisa lives a routine but seemingly content life in an apartment above a cinema, next door to her friend, middle-aged commercial artist Giles (Richard Jenkins), who struggles with the loneliness of being gay in an intolerant age. Although she can’t talk, Elisa expresses herself vividly through sign language and shares a love of music and old movies with Giles.
This quiet routine is disrupted when “the Asset”, a mysterious amphibian creature, played by Doug Jones, captured in the Amazon is brought into the facility by the repulsive agent Strickland (Michael Shannon). Elisa quickly forms a connection with the creature and sees past its appearance to the sentient being within.
The Shape of Water brings together del Toro’s favourite themes of fairy tales and horror, but at its heart, it is a story about love. Visually, it is stunning with its attention to detail making me want to watch it again and again so I can take it all in. The creature design is also wonderful and apparently took three years to create.
In interviews, del Toro has spoken about how the movie is a very personal one for him, not only because he was inspired in his youth by The Monster of the Black Lagoon, but to tell a story in today’s political environment about “the beauty and divine in the other, as opposed to the fear and hatred.”
The actors bring their all to their performances; Sally Hawkins gives Elisa a life and spirit that transcends her silence, and Richard Jenkins is delightful as her friend and reluctant partner in crime. He is one of those actors who brings a real sense of humanness and believability to their roles. Octavia Spencer is delightful as Elisa’s best friend Zelada, although a little-underutilised, and Michael Shannon is a suitably loathsome cold-war and cold-hearted agent.
I loved The Shape of Water so much, it is such a beautiful fairy tale about love, which makes me wish it was a more challenging one. Paying homage to the things you love can lead to great stories, but I wish del Toro had also found a twist of originality to take it to the next level. Nonetheless, it is a wonderful film and well worth seeing as we are in a time when magical love stories are sorely needed.
The Shape of Water is a feast of cinematic beauty as well as having pure love at its core. Check it out in NZ cinemas from the 18 January.
Reviewed by Adrienne Kohler.