Saturday, 23 December 2017

The Shape of Water

The critically-acclaimed The Shape of Water, directed (and co-written) by Guillermo del Toro, is an extraordinary film. It could have been an easy four-star classic (sigh). 

The cinematography is the first thing that strikes the viewer. It’s absolutely breathtaking from beginning to end and should win an Academy Award. The Shape of Water is set in Baltimore in 1961 and the cinematography and set design create a unique but perfect period feel, albeit somewhat stylized to also give it a sci-fi/horror feel from the 50’s, and, with the music revolving around a famous song from 1943 (You’ll Never Know), giving the film a 40’s noir feel as well. I loved it. 

Sally Hawkins, who is terrific, stars as Elisa Esposito, a janitor at a secret research facility. Mute since she was a baby (due to an injury to her neck which left deep scars), Elisa lives alone above a movie theatre (she loves old films), but spends a lot of time with Giles (Richard Jenkins), an older neighbour who works at home doing advertising art. Elisa’s only other friend is her coworker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). 

One day, as Elisa is cleaning the research lab, Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings in a captured amphibian-humanoid creature (Doug Jones). With the help of Dr. Bob Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), Strickland plans to run tests on the mysterious creature (which was found in a South American swamp) before those evil Russians find out about it. Elisa is immediately intrigued by the creature and uses her position (no one pays attention to the cleaning women) to learn more about it. And that is all you need to know. 

The Shape of Water is loosely based on the classic 1954 horror/sci-fi b-film, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, a film that scared the heck out of me when I first saw it back in the mid-sixties. But The Shape of Water takes the old ideas in entirely new directions and gives us something wholly original. It’s also much more grown up, though I don’t want to elaborate at this point. 

The acting by all those named is spot-on and the writing and direction are sharp, providing characters that keep us fully engaged and insights about our current world (not so different from the paranoid early 60’s). The Shape of Water is a magical film about how we view ‘the other’ and about love and community. 

This all sounds great, and it is, but, unfortunately, del Toro saw fit to throw in a coupe of scenes that upset me so much there is no way I can give the film the four stars it otherwise deserves (yes, they are violent scenes, but it’s not just about the violence, but about the unimaginative and graphic use of the violence). So there’s your warning. The Shape of Water gets a very strong ***+, almost at ****. My mug is up.

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