Mexican director Guillermo del Toro has spent his entire career carefully dissecting our concept of what "genre" is. Whether it be the comic book film with ‘Hellboy’, the fairytale with ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’, the gothic romance with ‘Crimson Peak’ or the monster film with ‘Pacific Rim’, his films always contain a combination of whimsy, passion and almost academic understanding of the traditions and rules that define their narrative genre. There may arguably be better storytellers in cinema today, but few as deeply fascinated with the act of storytelling itself, where it has come from and where it can take us. In many ways, his Oscar-winning ‘The Shape of Water’ is both the gentlest expression of that and the culmination of all his previous work.
The Cold War-era romance between mute cleaning woman Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins, ‘Godzilla’, ‘Blue Valentine’) and an amphibious man (Doug Jones, ‘Crimson Peak’) held captive in the military facility where she works, seems deceptively simple, something that confused many viewers expecting this awards juggernaut to be something far more complex or "important". One thing that becomes obvious on multiple viewings though (and I keep finding myself returning to this film again and again now that I have it in my home) is how delicate the construction of the story is, and how del Toro uses the fairytale conventions to show us something of ourselves, the way the original function of a fairytale was supposed to. It may not have the emotional fury of his masterpiece ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’, but nor is it trying to. There’s a bounce to ‘The Shape of Water’, a quiet sense of anarchy and a much more subtle approach. del Toro may have been developing this for years, but it could not have appeared at a better time, with race relations and the treatment of minorities in the U.S. - particularly related to del Toro’s home country - getting progressively worse. Some might complain that those connections aren’t particularly subtle or sophisticated, but that’s not the convention del Toro is going for. He’s not trying to be clever; he’s trying to be clear. This is a fairytale for adults, but in the literal sense of what a fairytale actually is, and even with the subtext bobbing comfortably on the surface, that commentary and allegory still have the power to make an impact.
SWITCH: 'THE SHAPE OF WATER' TRAILER
The film itself is also just so incredibly beautiful and deeply romantic. Of course we’ve seen this kind of story and this kind of world before, with comparisons easily drawn to the films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet. How does that lessen the joy of this film though? del Toro’s knowledge of genre cinema is staggering, and that he would pull on such an influence is understandable. He is taking a visual theme from directors like Jeunet and weaving his variation on it, the way storytellers across the millennia have always done. His evocation of America in 1962 feels both fantastical and complete, all concocted with love and care not just from him, but from his entire team. The tone of the film is delicious, bringing out his most playful qualities, making it arguably his most accessible film to date. The way it moves from moments of romance to moments of violence, sprinkled with wit and humour, is so idiosyncratic of him and would collapse if it were anyone else.
It also has just the most sublime cast. Sally Hawkins is perfect as Elisa, cheeky and sad and devastating, creating magic not just with Jones, but also Octavia Spencer as co-worker Zelda and Richard Jenkins as her neighbour Giles. Both Spencer and Jenkins are at the top of their game, as is the ever-wondrous Michael Stuhlbarg, and Michael Shannon as the film’s frightening antagonist. It’s a preposterously strong ensemble, all of them totally in-step with del Toro’s vision. And completing it all is Alexandre Desplat’s Oscar-winning and magnificent score, one of his absolute best.
Whether ‘The Shape of Water’ deserved the Oscar for Best Picture is besides the point (and really, with a line-up that strong, it could have been almost any one of those great films). The film itself is such a stunning piece of work that its legacy is assured from the moment the credits roll. It’s not quite del Toro’s greatest film, but it isn’t far off, and what it expresses about him as an artist is rich and deeply personal. ‘The Shape of Water’ feels like an artist bringing a major stage of the development of their work and themselves to a close. It feels like someone who has pursued an ideal and a dream finally laying their hands on it, embracing it the way we see Elisa and the amphibious man embrace one another. Few films are made with such love and passion as this one, and every frame sings as a consequence.
'The Shape of Water’ feels like an artist bringing a major stage of their development of their work and themselves to a close.
PICTURE & SOUND
As you would expect, ‘The Shape of Water’ looks remarkable in 4K UHD. The film was finished in a 2K Digital Intermediate, so the 2160p 1.85:1 transfer upscales the film to 4K resolution with dazzling results. The image is startlingly clear, bringing out the dense level of detail in the production design and in the underwater sequences, and the image itself is consistently stable. There isn’t a huge difference between the 2160p image and the 1080p transfer on the Blu-ray, but where this 4K UHD release surpasses it is in how the High Dynamic Range brings out a far richer palette of colours, giving the image enormous depth. In terms of audio, both the 4K disc and the included Blu-ray feature the same DTS-HD MA 5.1 track, but it's such a terrific track that not much is lost without the extra boost of Dolby Atmos. Again, it’s a incredibly rich and detailed design, and the track balances all of it beautifully, with dialogue always clear and the score given much room to breathe. Overall, I couldn’t imagine this gorgeous film looking or sounding better.
All the extras on this release can be found on the included Blu-ray copy, and all are of top-notch quality. The main feature is ‘A Fairy Tale for Troubled Times’ (28:55), a series of four featurettes coving the making of the production, featuring terrific behind-the-scenes footage, interviews with most of the team and lots of production secrets and surprises. Two ‘Anatomy of a Scene’ featurettes look at particular moments in the film, the Prologue (3:14) and the Dance (4:50), two of the more technically and thematically interesting moments in the film. ‘Shaping the Waves: A Conversation with James Jean’ (5:05) looks at the creation of the gorgeous poster art for the film, while ‘Guillermo del Toro's Master Class’ (13:27) shows highlights from a Q&A at the Zanuck Theatre with the director and his team (it’s a pity the entire thing wasn’t included, but it’s fascinating nonetheless). At every turn, you have del Toro discussing the heritage of the film is articulate detail, making the absence of a commentary track all the more disappointing. The set finishes off with the theatrical trailers for the film.