Film Festival Movie Review

Film Review: THE SHAPE OF WATER: Guillermo del Toro’s aquatic take on Beauty & the Beast stirs the heart and imagination [Venice 2017]

Sally Hawkins Doug Jones The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water Review

The Shape of Water (2017) Film Review from the 74th Annual Venice International Film Festival, a movie by Guillermo Del Toro, starring Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Octavia Spencer. Del Toro delivered a lush, dark interpretation of an aquatic romance in a dramatic saga that makes us laugh, cringe and sigh along the way.

Set in mid-century Cold War era, The Shape of Water focuses on Eliza (Hawkins), a mute, isolated woman who works in a hidden, high-security government laboratory. Her life changes forever when she discovers a secret, classified experiment that involves a mysterious creature. Source: Fox Searchlight Pictures. A freakish bond grows in what appears to be the darkest place on earth, where high suspicion of every living soul is the order of the day.

The casting was beautifully calculated. Del Toro has recently cast actors with a talent for verbosity, so it was an absolute pleasure to see him team up with Spencer as well as Shannon, and David Hewlett (of Stargate fame), who once again, played the overworked, underappreciated genius in the facility. These individuals chewed through enormous amounts of dialogue and exposition that perfectly balanced the quiet moments between our two silent lovers. So, when Del Toro made his protagonist mute, it was deliberate.

I can not say enough about Sally Hawkins as Eliza. She was perfect for the role. She was graceful, and shy and incredibly brave. All these words everyone else is speaking, Eliza is listening but feeling vastly different about everything. Hawkins used every instrument of body language known to woman to exhibit her feelings as a silent protagonist. It was inspiring to watch her work. Eliza listens to her friends Zelda and Giles (Jenkins) talk endlessly about their rotten luck in love, while she dwells in her own special, silent loneliness. Her story changes  when she is able to connect emotionally with another traumatized, quiet being who is silent but strong like her. One a woman, one a creature, but both are survivors. We can not help but root for them.

What we lack in Eliza’s speech, is more than compensated by Del Toro’s collaboration with Alexander Desplat for musical composition. The score is stirring, and lends an undercurrent of magic to the fantasy we witness. Old time romantic themes play throughout. The strings and piano pieces are playful. Insertions of classic musicals give the film a lighthearted feel despite the scenes of cruelty, danger and disappointment. Our protagonist cannot voice over her opinions, or sing out her feelings like in our favorite Disney films, but wherever possible, Desplat’s music has us floating on air or biting our nails.

Del Toro is a master at creating cinematic tapestries full of moody landscapes saturated in vibrant color. One can be forgiven for thinking she is lost in a Caravaggio. Like in those dramatic paintings of old, The Shape of Water is visually exquisite. Del Toro reunited with his Crimson Peak cinematographer, Dan Lausten, who plays with light and shadow not only to build suspense, but to point us toward the truth and the lies, hate and humanity, good and evil in the spirits of our characters. Have no doubt, The Shape of Water is a saltwater dance between good and evil.

The colors of water: blues and greens and and dancing raindrops subliminally encourage our emotional journey with Eliza. The color story becomes almost as important as character development because as scenes build in intensity, our visual experience changes from being sprinkled with shades of aquamarine to submerged in the color.

There were other symbolic elements as well. Eggs were everywhere. Water was constant. Blood, rust and decay are symbols of death and dying that are interwoven with symbols of life and healing like the eggs and water. There is so much to explore concerning the healing abilities of water represented in this film, especially how water can revive passion in hopeless romantics. Also the resistance to water was a symbolic, as Strickland (Shannon) represented in his inexplicable aversion to the element.

The Cold War aspect of this story is important too. Often, in this era, it was difficult to tell enemies from friends. There are people in this wretched place that can not be trusted. However, Spencer plays the kind of best friend one could only hope for in Zelda. Zelda is a fast-talking, sympathizer with a heart of gold and the bravery of a lioness. No one messes with Zelda’s silent friend without her saying a word about it first. She and Eliza have a beautiful friendship that is tested in this saga.

These two women separately face prejudices and biases because of skin color, class, or disability. But they seem to see each other’s heart, and value one another regardless. I loved seeing Spencer in a Del Toro romance pic. She was a joy to watch. You almost forget that, again, she is playing a maid in the 60’s with a good-for-nothing husband. Even with so little meat to chew she shined, maybe with a little more she would have shined even brighter.

Being set in the 60’s, The Shape of Water incorporates overtures of prejudice in dialogue and deed. Class, nationality, race, sexual orientation and disability all pepper the plights of individuals in this film. The overarching theme seems to focus on love in spite of differences. Then again, hostility based on pure prejudice bubbles beneath the surface. Inside the facility is a decrepit microcosm of the warring outside world. These characters navigate both worlds with a little bit of laughter while dancing on egg shells.

Shannon’s elitist character, Strickland, made this abundantly clear. Strickland was the face of barbarism in a tidy suit and tie. He was a terrifying human being who felt he was the picture of normalcy. In The Shape of Water, Shannon proved he really can play anything, and with perfect ambiguity.

We are drawn in by the mystery. We are sustained by the love story. We are questioning humanity and sanity. What separates us humans from animals? What is the shape of humanity? What does love look like? We have a cast of characters with differing opinions on these subjects, and it is fascinating to watch. Still, The Shape of Water is truly more than meets the eye.

Score: 8.5/10

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About the author


I am ...a lover of all things film ...a published poet with a law degree from Howard University School of Law ...a D.C. native, who frequents local and international film festivals ...a self-professed couch potato who can usually be caught watching anything produced by Joss and Jed Whedon. My favorite TV shows include the Buffy & Angel Series, Sons of Anarchy, Oz, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and The Shield. Still, I am open to everything on TV and Netflix, which is doing big things.

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