The Shape of Water Review

Guillermo del Toro already showed he could make a film like “The Shape of Water” before. His gift for turning historical fiction into fairy tales was abundantly clear in the stunning 2006 film “Pan’s Labyrinth” – it’s just a shame we had to wait so long for him to enchant us again.

The delay was probably because Del Toro has many mistresses as a storyteller, namely horror, science fiction and fantasy, so the fact that he has such a big heart hidden beneath his inclinations toward surface-level genre pleasures always seems to come as a surprise. In “The Shape of Water,” he’s able to scratch all those itches, but he and co-writer Vanessa Taylor craft a story rooted in classical romantic ideals of good, evil and love, pushing back against the complexities of most modern films to deliver something pure if not escapist.

The story has dark turns and embraces violence, race and sexuality in a way you would never have seen if the film were made even 20 years ago, and that gives “The Shape of Water” an unexpected verve to accompany its many classic tropes and general romantic aura. In other words, the film presents and plays out in a way that’s more traditional Hollywood than any of the other most-talked-about films of the year, but upon closer examination is actually quite progressive.

Taking place in Baltimore during the Cold War, the film essentially tells the story of a group of social outcasts who try to save a mysterious human-like sea creature from being exploited and experimented on for the sake of America’s pissing contest with Soviet Russia. It is Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a woman who is mute, who becomes taken with the creature (Doug Jones) at the facility where she is a janitor, because it makes her feel seen for more than her disability. So she recruits her black co-worker (Octavia Spencer) and closeted neighbor (Richard Jenkins) in her quest to free it from the clutches of the high-and-mighty Strickland (Michael Shannon).

That’s a little bit of the in-between-the-lines plot summary, but it shows the way the story blends traditional elements with contemporary consciousness. Each actor is perfectly cast in his or her part (many of the roles were written for the actors), with Hawkins and Jenkins the highlights. Hawkins doesn’t even get to use her voice, but she channels so much through her hands and face. Jenkins is most of the comic relief, though certainly Spencer provides a major dose as we’ve come to expect of her based on “The Help” and “Hidden Figures.”

Some of the talents fill traditional Hollywood roles in a largely predictable story, but no knocks can be made against “The Shape of Water” in terms of artistry. “Pan’s Labyrinth” won three Oscars 11 years ago in the categories of cinematography, production design and makeup and this film will earn similar honors. More than even the details, however, is the powerfully cohesive vision behind the entire film. Everything from the vibrant ‘60s shapes and colors of the production design and costumes, to del Toro’s and D.P. Dan Laustsen’s elegant camerawork and lighting to Alexandre Desplat’s score create the magical world of the film and contribute to its transporting experience.

The many subplots (especially those of Strickland and Michael Stuhlbarg’s Dr. Hofstetler) and themes of “The Shape of Water” don’t feel as interconnected or as convincing as they aught to be for a film operating so fluidly on so many levels, but it’s a small knock against the screenplay in a film that is quite simply beautiful inside and out. In its simplicity, strong cast and many marvelous technical elements, del Toro offers audiences a variety of ways in which they can latch onto the romantic spirit of “The Shape of Water” and get lost in one of the year’s few films yearning to bring a little bit of older movie magic back into theaters.


4.5/5 Stars


The Shape of Water
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Written by Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg

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