The Shape of Water review: A folktale for future generations

  • The Shape of Water (2018)

For mute Elisa, days come and go without much variety: she works as a cleaner at a government facility where she hangs out with her best friend Zelda gossiping about her family life. Then, she spends evenings with her neighbour Giles, eating pies and watching musicals. But it must feel lonely in this world: soon enough we notice she’s a great listener, but never asks for much for herself.

the shape of water review

She’s on duty when an unlikely emergency grants her entry to a place where a classified secret is kept: a wild water creature, one of its kind, unknown to the world. Before too long, Russian agents and the laboratory’s chief cruelty officer Strickland try to get rid of the mysterious being – but Elisa notices the parallels that bring her close to the Amphibian Man.

It’s in the human nature to listen to the stories that have the aura of a mystical tale about them: we all love the miracles in the hopeless world, and the heartwarming feelings they bring us. And when the world decides to mess itself up on a regular basis, so much that we struggle to open a newspaper without getting disheartened, Guillermo del Toro brings us a story that oozes with mystery, love and hope that allows us to leave reality for an enchanted world, written and directed by him.

And it truly has the aura of a folktale for the future generations: with the director’s signature magical realism that casts us back to Pan’s Labyrinth, it’s a love story like no other. Told without clichés at every corner, The Shape of Water is a poetic tribute to the complexities of love and the forces it can evoke. It meanders with the rhythm and energy of a lyrical romantic ballad: it confides in imagination, pays tribute to the forces of nature, embraces supernatural elements and brims with emotion.

Its incredible atmosphere, crafted with trench coats from the Fifties and the tensions of Cold War making itself known in the background, lets us immerse ourselves in the story. The scenes written purely to reveal a detail about the character – for instance, Giles’s conversation with an owner of the pie shop he frequents – feel like little situational gems on their own. And if you wonder what the strangest sequence could possibly be, del Toro will offer you a shock and a half with a subtle joke on its expense a minute after. Disrupt and delight, as per usual.

Elisa is in safe hands of Sally Hawkins, who introduces our heroine with a lot of warmth and feeling. Thanks to her performance, her silence resounds twice as loudly, and when she launches an argument at Giles using sign language, every quick gesture throws a weighty punch full of emotional torment, pain and anger. The actress, who leads her heroine from calm timidity to earth-shattering confidence that helps her to do the right thing, brightens the melancholic air of the film every time she appears. And her perception of the world, carefully observed by the camera that follows her gestures with such a profuse engagement, is also painted with so much love that we get to truly feel what Elisa sees: the rain droplets on the bus window, the neon lights of the cinema downstairs from her flat, the shimmery rough skin of the water monster.

Del Toro populates this magical world with even more fascinating characters, executed tremendously well by the supporting cast. Both stay with Elisa because she might be the only one that listens, as we figure out after watching them with others; however, they’re put to test very soon and play an important role in helping our heroine to get the only thing she only ever truly cared about. Olivia Spencer as Elisa’s best friend is an absolute joy: her talkative heroine is a welcome contrast to the protagonist. Loyal and dedicated, she experiences the moments of disbelief but ends up risking a lot to preserve somebody who’s so dear to her. Richard Jenkins operates on intricacies with his delightful character creation, too. A talented artist striving for his next gig in advertising and perpetually sent off without a word of constructive feedback, he’s as lonely as his neighbour – and Jenkins portrays him as a complex man with problems that bring him down, flaws that stop him, and virtues that he sometimes silences out of fear. And let’s not forget Michael Stuhlbarg, whose complicated, humane hero leaves his very own mark on this story.

The film serves us also a merciless protagonist who stops at nothing to get his way. Michael Shannon is diabolic as a narcissistic security guard who has control over the life and death of the water monster. Merciless and psychopathic, he can kill the remains of hope in the audience with one blank stare and a spine-chilling smirk. But behind the obnoxious tyrant hides an incredibly insecure man who enjoys wrecking others in hopes it’ll cover up his complexes. He tries to compensate for his inner fears by creating a picture-perfect family life: a wife and kids who are almost obsessively interested in him when he sets his foot in the house returning from work aren’t an effect of love, but a product of careful planning. And projecting the vision of himself at others doesn’t stop there: he gets a Cadillac to proudly parade through the city and wave at people who feed his ego, overstretching to curate his brand of a self-made man and ruthless winner.

It’s easy to give in to the magic of The Shape of Water and the story with its lyrical beauty – it’s Guillermo del Toro at the heights of his craftsmanship. Surprising at every step and introducing the world of mystery and charm, it sets a fervent love story at its heart to give us hope like a future classic fable should.

The Shape of Water was screened as a part of the 61st London Film Festival. It’ll be released in the UK on the 16th February 2018.

Kasia Kwasniewska

Editor in Chief

Passionate about far too many things. Loves reading, watching films, eyeing (and producing) good design, listening to music and stuffing her face with chocolate on a daily basis. Cooks from time to time, and drinks far too much coffee to be a normal human being .