By Francis Bennett (Stratford, Warwickshire, England)

 

For those already familiar with director Guillermo del Toro, you’ll probably know what to expect with his latest film, The Shape of Water. He has an undeniably unique and striking visual aesthetic, apparent even in his less revered films (Hell Boy), and this combined with what he has personally described as a “fascination with monsters” has given us some true modern masterpieces, such as the breathtaking Pans Labyrinth. And here, he is on equally breathtaking form.

The Shape of Water is, to put it simply, a slightly altered retelling of traditional fairytale Beauty and the Beast. You have the innocent maiden, played superbly throughout by Sally Hawkins in a performance which relies totally on physicality, and the “monstrous” beast, an aquatic humanoid that has del Toro’s fingerprints all over it. Perhaps one of the great wonders of this film is how brilliantly the film-makers manage to endear you to our two protagonists, and indeed their bizarre yet poignant romance, without a single word of dialogue shared between them. You feel and cheer for them with the same fervour a housewife might in any Richard Curtis rom-com, but here the predictably cheesy “comedic” one-liners are replaced by sign-language and a tone that matches the dreamy atmosphere of Jean Cocteau’s classic Beauty and the Beast of 1943. The film is realised in a colour palette of dingy blues and greens, adding to the sense of fantasy surrealism that del Toro so loves and making it seem as if, even while in the main character’s homely flat, we are still submerged in water.

Indeed, the film’s visuals are something I cannot praise enough. It looks magnificent, perhaps due to the reliance on practical and in-camera effects that, at least in my opinion, will always look better and more convincing than the CGI Hollywood continues to insist on stuffing down our throats. It’s also something of a wonder when you realise that this film was made on a budget of a meagre, by nowadays standards anyway, 15 million pounds.

However, the aspect I found most admirable in The Shape of Water was simply how enlightening a story it is. The enemies of the film, as is true in many of del Toro’s films, are those in authority. The main antagonist is a grotesque monster, and the satirisation of his “perfect American family” is quite honestly hilarious. The Russian communists are mocked. The American dream is mocked: del Toro appears to be screaming “is this REALLY the kind of person we’re expected to aspire to?”. This is a film about finding companionship and solace and love, set in a Cold War backdrop where there is none at all. It’s a timely message too, considering the state of politics in our own contemporary society.

Overall, I really can’t praise this film. It’s funny and romantic, but also dark (at times a little on the gory side), and it’s accompanied by a relevant social message. It’s up there with del Toro’s very best, and I imagine will be also be considered one of this year’s best films (and deservedly so). If you haven’t seen it, you’re definitely missing out.

Rating: 4/5

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