Venice Film Festival: The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water
Venezia 74
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Starring Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg and Octavia Spencer

by Richard Hamer

After the unintentional knockabout comedy of Crimson Peak, and the slick blandness of Pacific Rim, it’s a pleasure to see Guillermo del Toro return to form in such triumphant fashion. While its creature design and staging evoke memories of Pan’s Labryinth or Hellboy, The Shape of Water is no retreat to past glories. Instead, it’s the work of a director who is still evolving, in a film imbued with qualities I wouldn’t necessarily associate with him: romance, sentimentality, and an almost lyrical storytelling.

It’s what can only be described as a Paranormal Romance; a story of a mute girl called Elisa (Sally Hawkins) who works as a cleaner in a government facility in the early 1960’s. When Elisa accidentally discovers the strange mer-man creature that is being studied there, she secretly befriends it. As time passes, and the creature draws closer to its inevitable date with dissection, Elisa hatches a plan to rescue it, with the help of her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) and fellow cleaner Zelda (Octavia Spencer).

At first, it surprises how little The Shape of Water does to stray from its predictable set-up. The full gamut of clichés are present and correct: the twitchy and suspicious government agent (Michael Shannon); the awkward, tender friendship between woman and beast; the panicked, comedic rescue; the sacrifice-laden finale. But well before the end, it’s clear that this is the wrong way to think about it: much like the period movies that inspire it and play in the background of many of its scenes, The Shape of Water is not clichéd, but rather timeless. This is polished, assured storytelling, which does not drag, falter or confuse itself over what it wants to be, or what it wants to say: it simply is. This extends to the cast, chosen – like in the Hollywood of yesteryear – because they are perfectly typecast for their roles. Vicious, paranoid agent Strickland is the archetypal Michael Shannon role, the fast-talking and unstoppable Zelda is archetypal Octavia Spencer. The Shape of Water is simply perfect in its construction, moving with – to use another timeless cliché – a clockwork precision.

But, while the story as a whole is certainly in the classic mold, in the little details The Shape of Water reveals itself to be a thoroughly modern film. As a story of love – in all its forms – del Toro is even-handed; sentimental without becoming sickly. Special mention must go to the sub-plot involving Elisa’s closeted gay neighbour Giles, played with real tenderness by the ever-reliable Richard Jenkins. Through it, del Toro demonstrates that, while he may be indebted to the cinema and style of the 50’s and 60’s, he is thoroughly aware of the ugliness of the period. Love is love is love, The Shape of Water suggests, and a future of acceptance between nations, genders and races is something inevitable if only the world would stop fighting it so damn hard.

There are few real criticisms to relay: some of the dialogue is a bit hammy (perhaps merely as an artefact of its period style), and there is the all-but inevitable third act lag in the run-up to the superb finale. Truly, this is del Toro’s finest work since Pan’s Labryinth: a visually sumptuous, brilliantly performed and timeless piece of cinema. The Shape of Water is a movie to be savoured.

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