Guillermo del Toro is no doubt one of the most talented directors working in Hollywood today, but his best films aren't his big blockbuster projects. While I appreciate movies like Pacific Rim and Hellboy for what they are, del Toro's smaller projects are definitely where his talent comes into its own. The Shape of Water didn't look like your typical blockbuster material and so I was looking forward to catching up with his latest, despite knowing little to nothing about the film upfront (still the best way to experience a film if you ask me). Luckily, del Toro delivered.
I watched The Shape of Water before the whole Oscar circus passed us by, I'm reviewing it after it won Best Picture and Best Director. It's rare for me to actually like an Oscar winner, then again it's also quite rare to see a genre film win any of the big Oscar prizes. If there was anyone capable of pulling it off though, it's definitely del Toro. He's been floating between fantasy, horror and action his entire career and he knows how to cash in on each genre without sacrificing broad public appeal.
The Shape of Water is a mix of fantasy and romance, with smaller patches of horror, mystery and thriller thrown in. Most of all though, it's a film that thrives on atmosphere and exists beyond simple genre classifications. With its peculiar lead character and its atmospheric retro charm, the film reminded me a little of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's films (I'm also not the first to connect the film to Amelie), but del Toro's film approaches his subject from a slightly more serious angle.
The plot is probably the least exciting bit of the film. It's a classic tale of love between two unlikely creatures. Elisa Esposito is a cleaning lady who works in a research facility. One day a big, aquatic, man-like specimen is brought in for safekeeping. Elisa, a mute, is drawn to the creature when she notices it picks up on her sign language. While the two are getting friendly with each other, the management of the facility decides to kill the creature in order to keep it out of Russian hands. When Elisa learns about this decision, she plans an escape for her newfound friend.
For a fantasy romance that is built around mood and atmosphere, charming and captivating visuals are essential. The Shape of Water delivers in spades. Beautiful camera work, warm and cozy lighting, strong use of color and magnificent sets make the film come to life. Also props for the special effects, which look traditional but don't come off too cheesy or fake. There are some obvious references to the work of Marc Caro here, but del Toro still adds enough of his own to avoid straight copycat behavior.
The music too is on point. It's a pretty expected and classic sound that doesn't deviate too much from typical fantasy scores, but it's never sentimental or tacky and it adds to the warmth and charm on multiple occassions. The score was handled by well-known composer Alexandre Desplat. While I'm not really a big fan of his other work, he rarely puts out anything that gets on my nerves. That in itself is somewhat of a rarity for popular Hollywood composers. The music may not be too defining for the film, but it definitely added to the overal atmosphere.
Star of the film is Sally Hawkins, who shines as Elisa Esposito, the mute lead character. Even though she doesn't have a single line of dialogue, she has no trouble at all getting across what her character thinks, feels and longs for. She is assisted by an excellent Michael Shannon, who rises above his typecast and delivers one of the best performances of his career. Additional credits go to Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins for strong supporting roles, rounding off a pretty exceptional cast.
The Shape of Water may look like a fancy blockbuster from afar, but it was actually made on a budget of 20 million dollars. That's not exactly pocket change of course, but for Hollywood standards it's pretty damn cheap, especially for a film that reaches this level of accomplishment. It's a perfect example of how most studios and directors overspend, a common practice we, the audience, is supposed to be funding. Rather than find ways to squeeze more money out of audiences, studios might do well to limit their spending and focus on ingenuity and creativity to compensate for talking the easy way out (ie trying to fix everything with more money).
Oscar or no Oscar, The Shape of Water is a pretty magnificent film. It's a surprisingly direct and straight-foward fantasy romance that doesn't shy away from incorporating horror and thriller elements when necessary. It sits well next to Pan's Labyrinth and it reaffirms del Toro's status as one of the biggest genre directors working today. It's a pretty easy recommend, especially if you liked his earlier work. If you're not in the del Toro camp though, The Shape of Water might be a bit too similar to his older films. That said, just watch it, there's a very big chance you'll fall for its charm.