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'The Shape of Water' review - the fairy-tale feature that deserved Best Picture

It's a dream of love and loss; The Shape of Water goregously shines an eerie green light on those usually marginalised by society and cinema because of who they are and the way they express themselves. Benjamin Smart reviews.

Made in response to the Universal monster films that inspired him in his youth, this award winning movie from creature-feature auteur Guillermo Del Toro may be his best film yet.

Set during the Cold War, the film follows the life of Elisa (Sally Hawkins), an orphaned mute who works as a cleaner in a government facility. Her mundane life is turned upside down by the arrival of a top-secret asset in the form of a humanoid amphibian, played by Doug Jones. What follows is an unconventional yet entirely believable romance.

Del Toro is meticulous when it comes to building the worlds that occupy his films. Every character has pages of backstory that fill in the blanks from their motivations to their favourite colour. He may seem overzealous in his attention to detail, but in the case of The Shape of Water it simply works. If the film was to be viewed as a machine then every part is in motion, feeding the narrative from all angles to create a final product that feels substantial yet not weighed down by its technicalities.

That being said the story isn’t the most unique. The film opens in a flooded apartment, as we are introduced to a sleeping Elisa, who is referred to as a “princess without a voice”. As this dreamlike sequence melts away the tone is already established. Del Toro is attempting to deconstruct the traditional fairy-tale romance whilst, stamping it with his trademark hint of the grotesque.

a tale of forbidden love that wears its influences proudly and unashamedly

Whilst the characters have a sense of depth, their motivations within the story can define them a little too well at times, leading to some predictable plot points. Yet to its merit it is refreshing to have a cast with such fleshed-out intentions.

Performance wise, Sally Hawkins does a stellar job as Elisa. Though lacking a voice, her use of sign language and the subtlety of her physical presence speaks volumes, most in part to her interactions with a supporting cast of Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer. As characters who are also marginalised by society - due to sexual orientation and race - they are able to manifest aspects of her character that would otherwise go unheard, poetically giving a voice to the silenced.

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Michael Shannon plays Colonel Strickland, a barrier for Elisa’s forbidden romance. An overtly masculine authority figure, in any other film he would be expected to be the primary love interest for our mute heroine. Yet this is a Del Toro’s film and in this world of monsters he most definitely ranks above them all. Sadistic and driven by pride, Strickland embodies the dark side of the American dream and is a great antagonist for what at times can be a deeply personal film.

With the constant advancements in VFX, most modern films seem to boil down to the spectacle of how they can push boundaries, sacrificing heart in the process. The Shape of Water bucks this trend. Whilst computer animation is present, it’s used as the finishing touch for what is a predominantly practical film.


Whilst Sally Hawkins is endearing enough in her performance, there would be a disconnect if she was forming a relationship with a digital counterpart. The amphibian-man is a practical suit that allows for a certain tangibility that can’t be beat. Hawkins doesn’t have to use her imagination to woo something that was built months later in a computer; the creature is alive and has just as much presence as her. Sparingly used VFX animates its eyes and accentuates its actions. It’s safe to say that the days of the uncanny valley are behind us.

The Shape of Water is more than just a creature feature. It’s a tale of forbidden love that wears its influences proudly and unashamedly and looks back at the history of cinema whilst boldly moving forward.

Like what you read? Read more from Ben on Twitter @bjsmart

Picture credit: YouTube / FilmSelect Trailer

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