TIFF 2017 Review: The Shape of Water is a Mesmerizing Fairy Tale Masterpiece.
From the brilliant and creative mind of Guillermo del Toro comes The Shape of Water, an original adult gothic fairy tale, unlike anything that you have ever seen before. The film follows a mute princess named Eliza (Sally Hawkins) who works at a secret government organization where none of the custodial staff knows what goes on behind closed doors. One afternoon an incident occurs which reveals that a mysterious creature is being held prisoner inside the facility.
Immediately fascinated, Eliza begins to interact with the creature whenever she gets the chance. They eat lunch together, talk, and listen to music. Eliza and the creature begin to connect on a much deeper and personal level than she ever expected. However, Strickland (Michael Shannon) has other plans for the creature. He plans on killing it no matter who stands in his way. Eliza must come up with a plan to help the creature escape from the facility and keep it out of harm’s way.
Right from the get go, del Toro sets up the story for the audience. This is no kiddie fairy tale but rather one with mature themes. I applaud del Toro for not holding back with where this film goes. There are a few sex scenes and ones that are rather unexpected. I think some audiences may have trouble watching these moments unfold but they are beautifully handled and filled with emotion.
Sally Hawkins as Eliza is a powerhouse. She holds the film on her shoulders without speaking a word. Ironically enough, The Shape of Water and Hayne’s Wonderstruck both feature strong female leads who use sign language to communicate. It is a pretty amazing to not only see a fairy tale with a princess who isn’t a standard cliché but one that has a handicap and isn’t made out to be the victim.
Richard Jenkins plays Giles who is Eliza’s older neighbor. Jenkins is a painter who tries to sell his work to advertisers. Jenkins and Hawkins have tremendous chemistry and bounce off each other with such ease. The two have a great back and forth conversations despite Eliza’s inability to speak. You can tell that these two care about one another and in a lot of ways are the only moral support they have. There is sort of a father/ daughter relationship going on between the two and it all feels very genuine.
The supporting cast which includes Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, and Michael Stuhlbarg are all terrific. Shannon, who is no stranger to playing the bad guy, is perfectly cast as Strickland. Shannon looks evil and menacing from the moment he steps into the film. Spencer is great as Zelda, a friend of Eliza’s that works with her. The two play off one another nicely and have a loyal and trusting friendship. Stuhlbarg plays Hoffstetler, a scientist that works at the government facility. There is some mystery behind Hoffstetler as he has multiple story lines but he is also a character that the audience latches onto and cares about deeply.
As for the actual creature, the design looks like a combination of creatures that we have seen in del Toro’s previous outings and he combines them all together in this film. There are splashes of the creature from Pan’s Labyrinth mixed with the Creature from the Black Lagoon in this character. I love that the story focuses on the advancement of the creature and is treated by Eliza as a human rather than a monster.
Del Toro does a spectacular job of humanizing the outsiders and the monsters. The scenes where the creature begins to learn sign language and comprehend music are utterly fascinating to watch. The bond that Eliza and the creature have feels genuine and natural. It does not seem like something that is at all forced but rather a story about two outsiders that feel excluded from the world around them.
The Shape of Water takes place in the 1960s and is a love letter to the era and cinema. I found myself deeply engaged and stunned by the visual style and the locations. There are so many beautiful and colorful moments that are mixed in with various clips and references to films and television shows. I admire the fact that del Toro decided to pick films and television shows that aren’t commonly referenced such as Mr. Ed.
The budget of The Shape of Water surprised me. The film looks and feels like something that would cost 60 to 80 million but was somehow made for right around 20 million. Del Toro was able to do a lot with so little. I could only imagine how hard it was to put together a film of this magnitude with such a small budget. I think that in itself is an incredible feat.
The Shape of Water is a must see mesmerizing fairy tale for adults. It combines Beauty and the Beast with several stories from the Grimm fairy tales. The result is something that is a one of a kind experience and is not to be missed. This is the film that del Toro fans have been yearning for ever since he blew audiences away with Pan’s Labyrinth back in 2006. The cast, the visuals, and the story are remarkable making this one of the year’s most memorable and beautiful films. I cannot wait to rewatch this one over and over again.
Scott ‘Movie Man’ Menzel’s rating for The Shape of Water is 9 out of 10.