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[TIFF Review] ‘The Shape of Water’ is a Beautiful and Captivating Fairytale

[TIFF Review] ‘The Shape of Water’ is a Beautiful and Captivating Fairytale

It’s hard to do justice to the emotional impact of Guillermo del Toro’s newest film, The Shape of Water.

This romantic fairytale for adults is simultaneously beautiful, whimsical and magical; it is a film that is as much in love with outsiders as it is with old Hollywood films. It’s a wonderful showcase for Sally Hawkins, who has done brilliant work in smaller films and here emerges as a bonafide star without ever uttering a single word (save for a fantasy sequence in which she sings and dances!). Del Toro directs from his own script and the resulting film is clearly a labor of love.

Eliza (Hawkins) is a mute cleaner working at a high-security military laboratory in Baltimore in 1962. Her life is a series of mundane routines and even though she has a few good friends, including co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and queer neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), Eliza’s life is uneventful, unexceptional and uninspiring. Everything changes with the arrival of Strickland (Michael Shannon, properly villainous) and his mysterious South American asset (Doug Jones, looking like the brother of Hellboy‘s Abe Sapien), whom Strickland hopes to leverage into both a promotion and a weapon for the American military to use against the Soviets. But he never counted on Eliza meeting and falling in love with the Creature, nor the lengths that she will go to save it.

The Shape of Water benefits from being the unlikeliest of love stories, although her love for the creature is never made to feel odd or icky. She develops a playful relationship with it over a shared affinity for eggs, music, and dancing, though in reality their connection is built on the fact that neither fits the traditional definition of normal. This idea is organically woven into the film’s narrative and characters in the form of Zelda and a few other characters of color, and much more forcefully in Giles, who has a subplot about an ill-advised interest in the man working at the local pie shop.

Thematically this is some pretty heavy stuff, but as usual, del Toro’s mastery of fantasy elements makes it go down like sugar. The color scheme of the film fits its titular interest in water, meaning the film is awash in soothing blues, greys, and teals (including Eliza and Zelda’s work uniforms). The music is playful and soaring, befitting the film’s obsession with old Hollywood movies, which is evidenced when Eliza and Giles watch (and occasionally recreate) dance numbers in their apartments above the empty movie theatre. Still, it is important to note that The Shape of Water is equal and complementary to del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth in that it surprisingly scary, graphic and adult in places. A scene involving the creature’s attack on Strickland early in the film is graphic and bloody, while later scenes between Eliza and the creature feature frank sexuality that is refreshingly honest (and brilliantly conveyed by a change in costume color).

At its roots, The Shape of Water is a love story. It may feature elements from the horror, action/heist and spy genres, but its foundation component is Eliza and what happens when she meets the individual she has been waiting for all of her life. It is a beautiful, evocative and captivating film, guaranteed to resonate with audiences old and young. Simply put, it is one of the best films of the year.



  • Elizabeth

    I cannot wait to see this. But is it going to make me cry my eyes out like Pan’s Labyrinth? I had to drink half a bottle of wine after that.

    • I Am Colossus

      I loved that movie, Del Toros best in his own element and this one looks amazing

    • Only half a bottle? Couldn’t have been that bad. 😉 I do love Del Toro and can not wait to check this out. Here’s hoping it gets a big enough Oscar push to show up in theaters everywhere.

      • Elizabeth

        Maybe it was more 😛

    • Lindsay-Ann Morrison

      I dragged friends to the premiere when we were in high school, they didn’t care for it, but I was so heartbroken at the end. It remains one of of the films I treasure most.

    • Steph Durant

      Pan’s remains my very favourite film.

      • Evan3

        It was my favorite GDT film until I saw Devil’s Backbone. Give that a spin and see how it stacks up.

        • Steph Durant

          I’ve seen all of GDT’s films, including those he only produced or executive produced (The Orphanage, for example, which is fabulous). Devil’s Backbone was indeed outstanding, and I rank it second behind Pan’s, for GDT’s repertoire. The cinematography in Pan’s just puts it over the top … it is mesmerizing. It is looking like The Shape of Water will make it a mix of three GDT’s, once I see it, come December.

    • It is entirely possible that you will cry. It’s more romantic than sad.

      • Elizabeth

        OK. I can deal with sad adults much better than sad children/animals.

  • MulderIsBack

    Looks too much like abe.

  • J Jett

    SO freaking excited for this!

  • zombie84_41

    I can’t wait for this. I’m hoping for a juicy box set of del toro films.

  • jacobia

    Glad to hear it’s good. I’ve been interested since first hearing about it and am now keen to see it.

  • RawBeard

    I’m looking forward to this and hope it’s a return to form for Del Toro as I found Crimson Peak to be lacking.

  • Jada Maes

    A. Now that I’ve had The Dark Tower and It, this is the one I’m most excited about, and
    2. Can we FINALLY shut down the Abe Sapien prequel horseshit?

  • Stogie Jones

    Is there a movie BD doesn’t like?

    • Oh just wait for my review of Vampire Clay in a day or two…

      • Evan3

        You better deliver… this site has been unbelievably effusive of its praise lately.

  • sliceanddice

    Good stuff. After crimson peak let me down, here’s hoping this is better.

    • It is definitely a stronger entry than Crimson Peak. Found that CP had elements that worked, but not as a whole. Here the entire film works beautifully

      • sliceanddice

        Good to know. will certainly have a look!

  • marklola12 .

    cant wait to see it just hope it is good because its rare I trust the reviews on here lately

    I do like how toro chooses a cast that is nothing to do with good looks

    • Jada Maes

      Ever watch Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s movies? They borrowed a lot of design from him for TSoW, and he has the same knack for picking actors with unique faces.

      • It’s true. At times Shape of Water is very evocative of Amelie.

  • He had such a beautiful imagination!

  • Evan3

    Oh I desparately hope this is good. I had written off GDT as having forever been lost to self-parody and style over substance after his last messy efforts (Pacific Rim, Crimson whatever, and The Strain). Maybe this is his mid-career surprise ala Big Fish with Tim Burton.

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