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London Film Festival Review: The Shape Of Water – “A dazzling achievement”

The Shape of Water is, of course, Guillermo Del Toro’s latest film. Although all his films are deeply personal, it feels like his most intimate expression since Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s undeniably the closest in feel and tone to his Spanish-language films. It also marks the first time that Del Toro has ever been 100% happy with one of his films: he says that even decided against doing a commentary track for the eventual Blu-Ray because he thinks the film can speak for itself.

The film is set in 1962, at the height of the cold war. It concerns a mute cleaner, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), who becomes wrapped up in a government discovery of a creature known as “The Asset.” She soon befriends the creature (Doug Jones), which is a mixture of Abe Sapien from his Hellboy films and the Creature from the Black Lagoon in design. He is abused by a sadistic security officer, Strickland (Michael Shannon), and the government is interested in using it for the space race because it can switch between breathing mechanisms. Elisa soon falls in love with the creature, but first she needs to rescue it from the military lab where it is being held.

Del Toro manages to beautifully weave a love story with a monster movie and a conspiracy thriller. However, despite these intersecting genre conventions, it’s first and foremost a love story about how love, in reality, takes no shape (hence the title, because water is a shapeless chemical substance.) It deals with both sexual and platonic love, for example, Elisa’s neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) is a closeted gay man but they clearly love each other. Del Toro obviously included a gay character to add to the notion that love takes no shape, species, gender etc. He used Jenkins because he played a gay FBI agent in the underrated Flirting with Disaster—Del Toro liked the matter-of-fact nature of how Jenkins played it, he never played it “gay.” The role of Giles was written for Ian McKellen who would’ve been wonderful but it would’ve been a very different performance.

The cast is expertly chosen, even if they would not have been my first choices for a film that is about a woman falling in love with a fish. For most of the main roles, Del Toro wrote with these specific actors in mind. I’ve never really cared for Sally Hawkins’ on-screen presence before, but in this film, she really lights up the screen in every scene. Michael Shannon is perfect as the menacing villain of the piece which visually would normally be the hero. He is one of the very few actors who can play anything really and is absolutely brilliant in the part. Octavia Spencer was attracted to her role because due to the fact the central couple are not verbal, the film’s dialogue is carried by people who would’ve been oppressed at the time the film is set.

Long-term Del Toro collaborator Doug Jones plays The Asset, and as everyone who is familiar with his work knows, he is much more than a stand-in but a true performer. Without Jones behind this central character, the creature would simply not come alive as it revolves around him.

The film was shot digitally and it doesn’t show, and was said to have come in for under $20 million (a similar budget to Pan’s Labyrinth), with Del Toro waiving his fee to be able to make it. Contrary to the budget size, it is beautifully designed and looks fantastic, and has similarities with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s films due to the use of colour especially the various shades of green. They have certainly been influenced by the same people, and perhaps had an unconscious influence on each other as well. They have similar tastes, so it’s something of a given that there will be aspects in common.

I would say that The Shape of Water is Del Toro’s most satisfying film since Pan’s Labyrinth, with the possible exception of Hellboy 2—even though all of his films, including his big-budget productions, are deeply personal. It’s a dazzling achievement that plays around with genre so extensively that even incorporates a musical sequence. In sum, The Shape of Water is an important film for the times we are living in and ends with a slightly more hopeful vision than Pan’s Labyrinth. As of this writing, it is a surprise Oscar contender, tipped for a number of awards including Best Actress, Best Director and Best Film. It’s Del Toro at the height of his powers, and gives me hope that he may yet get his plans for At Mountains of Madness off the ground.

The Shape of Water is due out in the US on 8th December 2017 and in UK cinemas on 18th February 2018.

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