Film review: The Shape of Water

The history of films with water-based titles is a little chequered, from Adam Sandler in The Waterboy to the notorious Kevin Costner vehicle Waterworld.

Cert 15, 123 mins

Vue York, City Screen, Everyman

From Weds Feb 14

Movie website

Thankfully though, H2O’s cinematic stock looks set to rise with the release of Guillermo del Toro’s romantic fantasy The Shape of Water, which hits the big screen on Wednesday 14th.

The multi-Oscar nominated new film from the Pan’s Labyrinth director is an engrossing, charming adult fairy tale with beautiful visuals, an intelligent, witty script and a wonderful central performance by Sally Hawkins.

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Mysterious being

Hawkins stars as Elisa, a gentle, unassuming mute woman who lives above a cinema and works as a cleaner in a government facility in early 1960s Baltimore.

She’s content, if not happy, and enjoys mutually supportive friendships with her big-hearted, no-nonsense co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures) and her older neighbour Giles, a nervy, kind-hearted artist (veteran character actor Richard Jenkins), with both of whom she communicates through sign language.

Everything changes for Elisa when her employer takes possession of a new, top secret asset which arrives in a water tank.

It comes accompanied by a sharp-suited, bullishly charismatic government agent named Strickland (Michael Shannon, Man of Steel), who appears to be conducting a series of violent tests on the mysterious being.

Secret love

Octavia Spencer and Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water

Elisa and Zelda are called in to clean up the room in the wake of a particularly bloody incident, which leads to Elisa meeting the captive – a scaly humanoid creature kept locked away in a tank or chained up in a shallow pool, who like her cannot speak.

She soon becomes a regular visitor, surreptitiously feeding him lunch, finding ways to communicate and showing him an altogether kinder side to humanity than Strickland and his military bosses.

Their bond blossoms into a secret love affair, while scientists and military men on both sides of the Cold War plot to discover the creature’s secrets – or destroy it.

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This takes place against the backdrop of America in the Mad Men era, where billboards promise better living through shiny consumer goods, and chintzy franchised bars and restaurants are opening across town.

So the scene is set for what we’re told at the outset is “a tale of love and loss”, through which del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor deftly weave themes of communication, isolation, compassion and the fear of the Other.

In this they’re aided by excellent turns from the main players. Hawkins shines as Elisa, expertly conveying the quiet loneliness and fierce passions that lie under her serene exterior – a more understated, guarded version of her irrepressible Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky.

Electric performance

Staying positive… Michael Shannon. Photograph: Kerry Hayes

Spencer and Jenkins too are hugely likeable as her friends – their fiercely protective love of Elisa powers the film’s emotional heart as much as the central romance does.

As Zelda, Spencer provides a feisty commentary on her home life and on the great and good whom she and Elisa have to clear up after; while Jenkins is charming and touching as Giles, a man desperately trying to keep a foothold in an increasingly uncaring mainstream.

On the other side of the moral divide, Shannon’s Strickland is as compelling a villain as we’re likely to see on screen all year. It’s an electric performance, channelling the implacable cruelty of the Captain in Pan’s Labyrinth blended with the devilish charm of JR Ewing.

Richard Jenkins, director Guillermo del Toro and Sally Hawkins on the set. Photograph: Kerry Hayes

The creature itself is soulfully brought to life by regular Del Toro collaborator Doug Jones, aided by a superb mixture of practical effects and CGI.

Part monster movie, part love story, part homage to Hollywood’s Golden Age, it’s also surprisingly funny in places

And of course, the film is fantastic to look at – the sets are wonderfully detailed, from the shabby, cluttered cosiness of Elisa’s flat to the cool, clean retro sci-fi stylings of the lab.

The colour palette is dominated by a suitably aquatic mix of pale blues and greens, while water-themed imagery is everywhere, from the opening shots rendering the film’s world as a sunken fairytale kingdom, through to the rain-lashed finale.

Part monster movie, part love story, part homage to Hollywood’s Golden Age, it’s also surprisingly funny in places, with Spencer and Jenkins in particular getting some nice one-liners. The humour anchors the film’s flights of fancy, ensuring it never becomes too indulgent or pretentious.

All in all, it’s a great piece of work – a captivating, beautifully realised adult fable and a heartfelt plea for peace, love and understanding.