14 October 2017

London Film Festival Review: The Shape of Water

(Dir: Guillermo del Toro, 2017)

You can usually rely on Guillermo del Toro. His latest foray into the fantastical, The Shape of Water, is the perfect example of what he does best. He is the master of melding the otherworldly into the environment we inhabit, suggesting there's something hiding beyond the veneer of the reality we know. And he creates richly enticing worlds with strong, interesting characters.

The Shape of Water is driven by Sally Hawkins' soulful performance as Eliza, a mute cleaner working in a government facility who finds herself drawn to a nameless creature shackled up for study. She is incredibly expressive, portraying so much through limited signing and a physicality that many actor's might struggle with. There's a love of grand old Hollywood song and dance, with something always playing in the background of her home life that seems to infuse further into her personality the happier she becomes.

Her neighbour and friend Giles (Richard Jenkins) is a strong influence on her in this regard. His character is intriguing, seemingly a little left behind by time and nervous about how he can be himself in public. Jenkins is a character actor who pops up in a lot of supporting roles but this might be one of his best. As chief antagonist Strickland, Michael Shannon is well beyond the point of being typecast as the overtly intense bad guy he plays so well. He has enough quirks to avoid feeling too clich├ęd here, seeming to slip into this time period with a natural ease. And lest we forget the fine comic relief offered by Octavia Spencer as Eliza's colleague, who's always concerned about her but there to help.

The setting is key to the film and an important part of what makes it so effective. We're in mid-sixties America and presented with an almost idealised version of how it used to be  this is "the American dream" come to life, but with occasional cracks revealing the reality. The paranoia of the time seeps into overarching motivations, with the fear of Russia and the space race adding an intriguing angle. Recreating this era allows for some beautiful production design, from striking colour palettes to classic vehicles to the archaic technology. Thus the fascination with old school song and dance neatly fits, creating an enjoyable extra dimension.

Regular del Toro collaborator Doug Jones is back as the creature of Eliza's fascination. Through Jones' chameleon-like ability to become something hitherto unseen he adds a subtle personality to the creature, and as ever so much of the believability comes through the way he moves, stunning make-up and use of practical effects. This creature is not named beyond being called "the asset", with just a limited amount of information given on what it actually is – that's absolutely for the best, creating a necessary sense of mystery. The film is not about understanding it, it's about how it changes the life of Eliza as she connects with another lost soul. It's a love story in the way that one can imagine del Toro would make one, and it's really very effective.

The Shape of Water is del Toro back at his best. The focus is squarely on the characters which ensures this doesn't turn into a creature feature, and it's shot through with a gleeful joy that's nicely balanced by a subtle undercurrent of threat. So much rests on Hawkins' shoulders and she is excellent, proving again that when written well, characters who can't or won't speak can be some of the most powerful. This is cinema at its most enticing.

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