Something in the past I have been guilty of believing is that Guillermo Del Toro is a ‘style over substance’ Director. I realise that these are not mutually exclusive, a film can be both incredibly stylish and have substance certainly, but I have felt in the past that Del Toro had picked spectacular visuals over storytelling.
This isn’t always true of course Pan’s Labyrinth, for instance, is beautiful visually and narratively speaking but some of his other movies such as the Hellboy films and Pacific Rim, very much feel like they subscribe to the ‘style over substance’ tag. Not that it makes them bad movies, Pacific Rim was enjoyable if a bit generic for a Del Toro film, and I quite enjoy the first Hellboy film.
So to modern times, does The Shape of Water impress as much as the hype tells us?
A lonely, mute woman working in a government facility falls in love with a mysterious aquatic creature, but she soon finds that both her life and the creatures are in danger.
That story synopsis is perhaps one of the most difficult I’ve ever had to write. Not because I didn’t understand the story, but because to say to much would give the game away and this is a movie that deserves to be experienced on a cinema screen.
As usual, let’s deal with some negatives first. The biggest problem I had (although it did subside as the movie went on) was Octavia Spencer’s character Zelda, she felt a little too stereotypical for my liking, especially in some early dialogue. She does come into her own as the film wears on, but for a short while she’s almost a caricature of a southern African-American woman. I had to dig quite deep for that nit-pick, oh and there’s a subplot to do with Russians, because this is based during the Cold War, so Russians must be involved somewhere, it’s a law I think.
With those petty niggles out of the way let’s get to the heart of the review shall we? This movie is stunning, absolutely stunning, yes Del Toro’s usual style is present in all its bombastic ways, but instead of overshadowing the story, it really builds an incredible world, an often dark world, full of shady characters but a beautiful one.
Everything from the design of the sets to the way it’s shot jumps off the screen in another astounding way, Del Toro recently claimed the BAFTA for Best Director, and it is well deserved. A truly great director doesn’t just point a camera at actors, he immerses you in new and interesting worlds, takes you on a roller coaster with characters that you grow to like, the fact that they can do so in an arty way is just a bonus really.
What of the characters then? Well, for the most part the people you’re supposed to empathise with are well-rounded and sympathetic and the guy you’re supposed to dislike is a complete and utter bastard. Sally Hawkins is the lead player here, what she has here is a character that many wouldn’t look twice at, she only speaks in a very brief dream sequence and for the rest she uses sign language. Making her character mute is a very interesting choice, a lesser writer may have just made her deaf, and have her use the same language, I can’t think of any other movies I’ve seen with a mute character so it’s nice to change it up, even nicer to put that character front and centre.
Rounding out a stellar supporting cast is Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer and Michael Shannon. The role of the Amphibian Man is played by long Time Del Toro collaborator Doug Jones, as well. The Amphibian Man, is another particular case that I’d rank with the likes of Gollum and Caesar of CGI used incredibly well. The creature looks and acts alive, which is a feat in itself with these things, as computer imagery often ends up being the butt of many a joke, but here you can tell love and attention went into it from the conception stage to the final product.
The plot isn’t exactly massively original, the themes of forbidden love and such dating back almost as long as cinema has been around, but the little twists and character developments keep it fresh enough to not feel like it’s something we’ve already watched, which is a feeling I get often with films now.
In conclusion, this is a film that comes with a wealth of acclaim, so my confirming this won’t come as a great shock, I don’t think it’s the best film I’ve seen this year, but I still loved every second of it, and would urge anyone to head down to the cinema to experience it, if possible, it’s a film I can see not transferring well to home media, even though it will still be great the effect it has watching it in a cinema immerses you deeply in its watery charms.