Review: The Shape Of Water Is A Fantastical And Modern Fairy Tale

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"Tale as old as time, true as it can be"

These may be the words to accompany a far more famous story but the essence of its meaning is none more evident than in Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water. It’s a visually delightful, fantastical and emotional treat that for all its inventiveness is also rooted in a classicism of old-fashioned romance. The power of love and the desire for acceptance are about as universal as you can get and this fantasy romance delivers with surprising heart.

Set in the early 1960s, Elisa Esposito is a mute custodian working in a top-secret American military laboratory. It’s the Cold War and the ongoing battle for the United States to gain the upper hand on the USSR (and vice versa) permeates all aspects of society. When a mysterious sea creature is brought to the lab for testing the silent Elisa forms an unlikely friendship with the monster; one that turns into unexpected love.

Guillermo Del Toro (who co-wrote and directed) has returned with his characteristic flair for visual sumptuousness and human storytelling, and it’s once again a sight to behold. Like his masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, he creates a world unique to itself yet infused with all the beauty and tragedy of this real one.

It is a Beauty and The Beast type story but it goes beyond that and presents these themes “as old as time” ¬†in a fashion that is new and just as emotionally satisfying. Indeed we see the idea of mistaken appearances manifest themselves in more than just Elisa and the creature but in all the characters. Each of them upholds the theme of inner and outer beauty as well as embodying the long-suffering outsider in their own ways.

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Giles, Elisa’s neighbor, and closest friend, (played commendably by Richard Jenkins) is a closeted gay man struggling both with homophobia and ageism. Seemingly ostracized from a normal existence he finds a reason to be because of Elisa. Zelda (Octavia Spencer) a fellow custodian at the laboratory is simply a black woman in a menial job just trying to survive while also being the only one to show kindness to Elisa at work.

And then there’s Colonel Strickland (a menacing Michael Shannon) a crude, irascible authoritarian who shows exactly what it means to be ugly on the inside. He’s the antithesis of the creature and again echoes characteristics from similar personifications (Gaston for instance).

"The Shape of Water is a great blend of fantasy with everlasting elements of intrigue, forbidden love, and good/evil. And so like the best fairy tales this film has its share of enchanting characters and locations, but its morals are as timeless as ever."

Wrapped in an imaginative setting with a backdrop of historical fiction, The Shape of Water is a great blend of fantasy with everlasting elements of intrigue, forbidden love, and good/evil. And so like the best fairy tales this film has its share of enchanting characters and locations, but its morals are as timeless as ever.

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For her role as Elisa, Sally Hawkins delivers a quietly restrained yet brilliant performance. Anchored largely by pantomime and the use of sign language, for being voiceless Elisa is still full of spunk and determination. Hawkins is both convincingly vulnerable and headstrong and shows that this ‘princess without a voice’ ¬†actually has plenty to say despite her lack of sound.

It’s not the first time this year that she’s played a disadvantaged character and in both cases, she’s been touching and respectful. As Canadian artist Maud Lewis in Maudie, Hawkins was greatly inspirational and deserving of accolades. This acclaimed streak continues in her role of Elisa and she’s again very deserving of awards and increasing attention. It’s clear that Sally Hawkins is a great actress and we can all look forward to her upcoming performances with optimism.


Visually speaking the film is again wondrous to behold; though there are plenty of shadows the imagery is vivid. From a creative standpoint scenes of the laboratory, underwater sequences and the design of the creature are eye-catching and splendid, while the recreation of 1960s life (from television sets, cars, and clothing) is accurate and used most creatively.

Add a charming score from French composer Alexandre Desplat, the sights and sounds of The Shape of Water round out an emotionally fulfilling story. Del Toro knows that blending the visually imaginative with great storytelling creates a winning formula that can appeal to a wide spectrum of human emotions.

With this there will surely be something for everyone; there’s beautiful and fantastical imagery, and then there’s a narrative that has its foundation in stories we all know well. In looking at the themes of love, acceptance and inner beauty Guillermo Del Toro has created a modern fairy tale with a wonderful framing of his trademark visual prowess.

Love can be a strange thing indeed, but if we learn anything from The Shape of Water its that through all its strangeness its lasting effect can’t be denied. In a thrilling and creative fashion, this film delivers a timeless message accentuated by a master filmmaker at the height of his powers. And for audiences we watch spellbound.

Michael Vecchio
Michael Vecchio
Michael Vecchio is a contributing writer for Before The Cyborgs. A graduate of the University of Alberta, he is a keen follower of events in the world of film, as well as politics and history. You can also hear him podcast about film and politics



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