Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer

THE SHAPE OF WATER. Directed by Guillermo Del Toro, with Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg and Octavia Spencer.

THERESA SMITH reviews

Creating a lyrical, sometimes even surreal fairy tale circa early 1960s, Guillermo del Toro beguiles with his stylish latest offering, The Shape of Water.

As much a take on Beauty and the Beast as it is a tale about what it means to be human, the film features a stellar leading performance from Sally Hawkins and a gorgeous, delicate, moving score from Alexandre Desplat.

Hawkins is Elisa, who, together with best friend Zelda (Spencer), works at a secret military installation as a cleaner.

Ignored by most because she is mute, Elisa sort of coasts along on a rigid routine where the most exciting thing she does is look at pretty shoes in a window display. Admonished not to do anything but clean, Elisa becomes curious about a creature held captive in an underground laboratory, striking up an unlikely relationship.

Her attempts at communication do not go unnoticed by one of the scientists, Dr Robert  Hoffstetter (Stuhlbarg) who has his own agenda, and the Cold War settings warns us not to be surprised when the Russkies pop up from under the bed.

Some of the interiors look like artworks

Cold War spy movie

Del Toro does a magnificent job blending magical fairy tale with Cold War spy movie, B-grade creature feature leanings and a classic love story. Plus, he gets in some social justice commentary without trying too hard, just putting it out there to let the audience pick up on it, or not.

The audibly visceral responses from the media screening I attended were a pleasant surprise – film reviewers tend towards “too cool to admit we just cried ‘cos the character died”.

But Del Toro tugs at the heartstrings by giving his characters the space to show their humanity, even as the story moves along at a fair pace. Though his two lead characters are silent, the audience can still empathise with their emotional journey.

A story about outsiders

Hawkins’ ability to project emotional vulnerability without stepping into soppy saccharine territory is used to full effect to create isolated, lonely Elisa.

When narrator Giles (Jenkins), Elisa’s very lonely in his own way neighbour, talks about the bad man in the story, it turns out he doesn’t mean the creature from the deep, but Michael Shannon’s security chief, Richard Strickland. Shannon has perfected the art of playing the everyman and here he takes it further, showing the banality of evil, stealing the show. He embodies a man who seeks self improvement and career advancement and yet drips callous malice not only in his treatment of the creature, but every person around him.

Doug Jones – the guy who played Abe Sapien in the Hellboy movies – is in there somewhere under the creature from Black Lagoon make-up, somehow managing to communicate curiousity, fear and purpose.

It’s got violence, nudity and cross-species sex, so it’s not a children’s story but what it is is a story about outsiders and the very human need to connect. It is also about the love of movies, both the craft of movies and the way stories on screen captivate us and transport to another world.

Film: The Shape of water
Opens: 19 January, 2018
Info: 0861-CINEMA (246362), numetro.co.za
Classification16 LNSV
Running time: 123 minutes
Theresa Smith’s: Weekend Special review. More from Theresa at
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