Tuesday, 9 January 2018

The Shape of Water

"If I told you about her, the princess without a voice, what would I say?"

There’s no doubt that Guillermo Del Toro is one of the greatest auteurs working in modern cinema. But despite this it seems as though his brilliant talent isn’t getting the full chance to flourish. Firstly there are the unprecedented number of cancelled projects to his name, the most tragic loss being ‘Hellboy 3’. Then he was unable to direct ‘The Hobbit’ trilogy as he originally intended. Then even when he released ‘Crimson Peak’ it was marketed as a generic horror film leading audiences and critics to misjudge it. But now he has a new film, and it’s fantastic.

Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mute, isolated woman who works as a cleaning lady in a hidden, high-security government laboratory in 1962 Baltimore. Her life changes forever when she discovers the lab's classified secret a mysterious, amphibious creature (Doug Jones) that lives in a water tank. As Elisa develops a unique bond with her new friend, she soon learns that its fate and very survival lies in the hands of a hostile government agent and a marine biologist.

One thing that never ceases to amaze me about Del Toro’s work is how it’s so clear than it could never have come from the imagination of anyone else. Everything in ‘The Shape of Water’ feels unique to his creative vision, and it feels like something no other filmmaker would attempt. There’s an exceptional quality to this film that makes it almost impossible to categorize. It’s gothic and fantastic in tone but also feels grounded in how it portrays the central romance, which is an impressive feat considering one half of said romance is a fish. It’s unnervingly dark at one moment but also beautifully whimsical, merging these conflicting tones brilliantly.

One thing that every character within ‘The Shape of Water’ has in common is that they are all out of synch with their environment, whether that environment is their location or the era in which they live. Characters like the amphibious creature are obviously out of their environment, but as is Sally Hawkins endlessly empathetic protagonist. Most of the world she inhabits refuses to hear simply because she cannot speak, as if that means she has no voice.

Then there’s her neighbour played by Richard Jenkins who is forced to repress his true self due to the social climate, as is Michael Stuhlberg’s character as his personal opinions as a scientist are belittled by the politic surrounding him. Then there’s Michael Shannon’s character, whom the movie continuously frames as being out of place in an ever changing world. Even 50 years ago the ideals his character represents were barbaric, and without spoiling anything I will say that there’s one scene in particular between Shannon and Hawkins that holds frightening relevance to the world we live in today.  

But another thing all these characters have in common is that they are portrayed brilliantly by the film’s hugely talented cast. Shannon brings a monstrously intimidating presence as the movie’s main antagonist, whilst the likes of Jenkins and Stuhlberg have endearing supporting roles as well. Octavia Spencer is a delight to behold, especially in her scenes with Hawkins where their friendship is instantly understandable. But it’s Hawkins herself that has to be the standout. I know it seems obvious to say that removing a character’s voice makes emoting all the more difficult, but I really cannot over emphasise just how phenomenally Hawkins manages to convey so much emotion through her physicality and facial expression. There wasn’t a single moment where I was lost over what Elisa was feeling, how she was reacting or what she was saying. It’s genuinely remarkable.

That being said, with a cast as talented as this it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that the performances are excellent. It also shouldn’t come as a surprise that Del Toro direction is amazing. His framing and composition are stunning to behold, with every shot being a work of art in itself. But for all the expertly shot set pieces, Del Toro so clearly has an intent to focus on the intimate moments that have a surreal beauty to them under his lens. He takes the time to build a relationship between his two protagonists that sees neither character speaking and yet they are constantly communicating. It makes the movie feel so personal and achingly humane. 

The colour palette is also fantastic, with DP Dan Laustsen using recurring themes and motifs to tie the film’s various locations together. There’s a consistency to the film’s editing and palette that helps tie its conflicting tones together. The film’s score by Alexander Desplat is also superb, being used at key moments throughout the film to elevate the emotional moments even further. It’s a score that’s affecting without ever feeling manipulative due to how well it ties into the emotions that the film rightfully earns. It’s these aesthetic touches that help elevate a story that is a tad predictable at times but never feels uninteresting due to the effort of the execution.

It genuinely is staggering to think that ‘The Shape of Water’ had a production budget of under $20 million, because it’s visual affects put the CGI of movies with a budget ten times as high to shame. Del Toro, Doug Jones and the rest of the production team render the creature so brilliantly that I never found myself thinking of it as an effect, there was never a moment where I doubted the illusion and instead I found myself utterly engrossed in the spectacle I was seeing. But even without those amazing effects, the movie works as a gorgeous and deeply moving work of cinema that could only have come from the mind of a true visionary.

Unique and intimate in a way that few movies are, ‘The Shape of Water’ defies any basic definition and is unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

Result: 9/10

1 comment:

  1. losmovies - I saw this today after looking forward to it on the strength Guillermo's earlier films and very thoroughly disappointed. The idea had the makings of a fine story but was marred with a promenade of predictable characters and obvious denouement. There was the obligatory 'Baddy' (see Avatar), the good Doctor, the singularly unconvincing Russian agents, and peripheral characters who's final demise was inevitable. It was like watching a second rate western where you knew the outcome and inevitable characters - the baddies get their comeuppance, the good triumph above all and everyone else is there to add the usual type- cast figures in the goings on. How this won best film is unbelievable, the re must have been so pretty awful stuff out there.
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