The Shape of Water (TIFF Review)

Last week I named Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water as one of my most (if not the most) anticipated films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Many are touting the film as one of the director’s finest works, even giving Pan’s Labyrinth a run for its money. Having seen the film at yesterday’s screening, I can say with the utmost confidence that Del Toro’s work lives up to every bit of the hype, and should be a major contender come awards season.

Set in 1962 Cold-War era America, the protagonist is Eliza (Sally Hawkins), a lonely mute janitor working in a government facility. While Eliza has friends in her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and aging neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), she longs for something more (comically depicted in the early bathtub scenes). Everything changes, however, when a mysterious amphibious creature (Doug Jones) is brought to the facility, whom Eliza befriends, and then feels obligated to protect from the head of the facility, Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon).

A period piece infused with fantasy, the film seamlessly veers from romance to drama, all the while infusing elements of social commentary, horror (though not in the ways one would expect), and comedy; it is del Toro cinema of the highest order. The film has so much wrapped into one cohesive package, where even the few minor missteps are forgiven for it well-paced, intricate narrative and fully realised characters.

Early in the film, what I really appreciated is that there no grand buildup to the creature’s introduction, which these days add up to little more than hyping up a gimmick that you already know is coming, making a film like Super 8, for example, more than a little underwhelming. Instead, del Toro hits all the right narrative beats in the opening scenes, with a necessary teaser or two before unveiling it to both Eliza and the audience. From this early time in the film then, del Toro can fluidly juggle the outer workings of the story, while still building the relationship between Eliza and the creature in meaningful ways. This, in turn, allows the audience to believably invest in the budding love between the two, scales and all.

While the creature’s design (which took the bones of five years to fully develop) and performance by Jones cannot be understated, it is Hawkins’ Eliza that is the true creation to behold. Del Toro has maintained a certain affinity for strong female characters throughout the years, and I think in this case he has crafted a heroine who will go down as one of the strongest in cinema.

Immense credit must also be given to Sally Hawkins, whose astounding performance conveys a great deal without having to utter so much as a word. Though she communicates with sign language, it is the actress’ subtle mannerisms that truly express Eliza’s believable, relatable character. When she suffers the frustrating limitations of her disability at one particularly crucial moment, I found myself empathising with her, and then mentally punching the air as she herself aggressively punches the wall in the place of shouting. I revelled at each display of her bravery and strength in the face of adversity, especially for someone who possesses no bark with a lot of bite, so to speak.

This all ties in with del Toro’s message behind the film. I was privileged enough to be present for a Q&A with del Toro himself, who walked out onto the stage following the screening of his film. There, he stated that his intention in making the film was to show that “Love knows no form,” and in the process “normalise abnormality.” The film further emphasises a unity blind to the difference, whether it be a disability, sexuality, or race, which is conveyed in Eliza’s proclaiming to a reluctant Giles that if nothing is done to save the creature she has fallen for, then they are sacrificing their own humanity. So, in addition to the film being a major technical achievement, it also boasts a morally admirable narrative that uses the 1960s America the backdrop to bolster its commentary on ignorance and bigotry, which del Toro rightfully points out is still very much alive today.

Once again, Guillermo del Toro has directed a masterpiece that, like Pan’s Labyrinth, says more about society and people with the fantastical than many a film ‘grounded’ in reality.

Until this point, I thought Baby Driver was the best film I had seen this year…and while still find myself torn between the two, The Shape of Water’s sheer social relevancy might give del Toro that extra edge in my top spot by the year’s end.

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