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The Shape of Water - DVD Review

The Shape of Water

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

OSCAR-winning movie The Shape of Water saw writer-director Guillermo del Toro make a welcome return to the type of filmmaking he exhibited with his best works, such as The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s as thematically rich and challenging as it is visually arresting.

Described by the director himself as ‘a fairytale for troubled times’, the film offers plenty of social commentary for those willing to see beyond the strangeness of its storyline. But that doesn’t mean it’s preachy or weighed down by over-earnest intent.

Rather, the same kind of storytelling flair that del Toro displayed with those aforementioned films is front and centre here, by virtue of the wondrous nature of the tale and the quality of its central performances.

Set in the US during the early ’60s, when Cold War hostilities were at their height, the film follows voiceless orphan Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a cleaner at the Occam aerospace research facility, as she befriends a strange amphibious creature from the Amazon that has been brought back to the US for research purposes (in a bid to win the Space race).

Elisa is inexplicably drawn to this creature, whose existence is continually undermined by those seeking to learn from it – most notably, sadistic government agent Strickland (Michael Shannon), who would much rather destroy the creature than learn from it.

When time appears to be running out for the creature (played by del Toro regular Doug Jones), Elisa resolves to mount a rescue operation, enlisting the help of her shy artist neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), fellow cleaner Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and another scientist [and covert Russian spy], Dr Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg).

The ensuing fantasy-romance is as strange as the synopsis suggests, particularly during the moments that Elisa bonds sexually with the creature. But it somehow succeeds by virtue of the time that del Toro takes to create believable characters and situations.

This is a dark, adult fairytale that treats its audience as grown-ups. And it has plenty to say about acceptance (practically every demographic is represented in some way) and being true to one’s nature, as well as man’s capacity for evil.

Hence, Elisa’s innocence and ability to express unconditional love serves as a nice contrast to the intrinsic and ever-growing evil of Shannon’s Strickland, making their respective journeys through the movie utterly engrossing. del Toro, meanwhile, strives to find optimism and compassion in the darkest of places, even when characters are prone to heinous acts of violence and/or betrayal.

It may be a story rooted within ’60s paranoia, but it proves to be scarily resonant today (particularly in light of some of President Trump’s policies).

Hence, the opportunities del Toro allows his peripheral characters to breathe also afford more scope for social observation, whether in the form of Spencer’s Zelda (and the racism shown towards her) or Jenkins’ gay neighbour (and the prejudices and fears he must overcome).

Away from those issues, the film also displays a keen knack for storytelling on a more basic level. It’s involving emotionally, exciting in terms of the escape sequences and clever in the way it resolves things.

And while, in my opinion, it wasn’t the obvious choice for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars (when compared with Three Billboards or Dunkirk), it is an admirable and hugely enjoyable film that shows what a terrific [and visionary] filmmaker del Toro can be.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 1hr 59mins
UK DVD & Blu-ray Release: June 25, 2018