An enchanting fairy tale from director Guillermo del Toro.
While not as powerful as his Spanish language classics Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, The Shape of Water is director Guillermo del Toro’s strongest Hollywood film to date. It’s a visually and emotionally engrossing fable, one that synthesizes so many of this unique filmmaker’s peculiar tastes and diverse artistic influences. It is a fairy tale, a monster movie, a Noir, a social commentary, and a valentine to the Golden Age of Hollywood, but above all else, it is a love story. It is poetic yet accessible, and earnest without being maudlin. Its biggest flaw is that its plot ultimately takes a surprisingly conventional route for such an otherwise unconventional Hollywood release.
The story centers on Elisa (Sallie Hawkins), a lonely, mute cleaning woman at a secret U.S. government lab near Baltimore in 1962. The lab’s newest “asset” is an amphibious creature captured in the Amazon, where the indigenous people worshipped him as a god. The G-Men and scientists believe the creature could offer military and scientific advantages against the Soviets in the ongoing Cold War, so they subject the gill-man to experiments and torture to learn more about him. Elisa makes contact with the amphibian, offering him compassion, care and companionship. Her fascination with him soon grows into romantic desire, which leads her to make choices that put all involved in danger.
The Shape of Water celebrates the power and magic of movies, and the filmmakers clearly had fun evoking different styles of classic Hollywood cinema. Nowhere is this more evident than in the film’s most heartwarming sequence, a lavishly designed, black & white musical number. Thanks to its florid cinematography and grand production and art designs (that range from the Gothic to steampunk), the sumptuous-looking Shape of Water fully transports the viewer to another time and place. The underwater sequences are particularly elegant and ethereal interludes that offer Elisa an escape from her grim confines.
This film’s most apparent influences are Creature from the Black Lagoon and Beauty and the Beast (two new versions of which del Toro had once been attached to helm). But this variation on Beauty and the Beast makes what had once been sensual subtext overtly text. To put it bluntly, this interspecies love story is decidedly not platonic. What could have been ludicrous or gross is instead something understandable and moving thanks to del Toro’s thoughtful execution and the endearing performances of this particular beauty and beast.
Sallie Hawkins gives an almost fully silent performance. It’s a finely nuanced, vibrant portrayal full of wry wit and passion. She is the heart of this movie and it simply wouldn’t work as well as it does if not for her heartfelt performance. If Jean Dujardin can win Best Actor for his silent movie turn in The Artist then Hawkins is even more Oscar-worthy here. The film’s other equally captivating silent performance belongs to the perpetually unappreciated Doug Jones, who previously brought Abe Sapien and Fauno to life for del Toro (among several other collaborations).
Jones is a bodysuit actor whose performance and pantomime breathe life and humanity into evocative creature designs, and this film’s amphibian man is possibly his most soulful, captivating creation yet. Graceful and sensual, yet also primal and animalistic, Jones imbues this creature with what the best and most sympathetic movie monsters, like King Kong, have: soul. Together, Hawkins and Jones make this Beauty and the Beast pairing particularly enchanting.
The most conventional thing about the film is its story, with a plot that never quite goes anywhere you can’t see telegraphed well in advance. This overfamiliarity extends to some of the casting as well.
As fine as both Michael Shannon and Octavia Spencer are here, neither actor is exactly covering new ground in their respective roles as a creepy, imposing authority figure and a cleaning woman/government facility employee in the ‘60s. The moment both actors appears onscreen it’s evident exactly who they are going to be throughout and they proceed to play all the expected notes. I can’t help but wonder what actors already known for playing such roles might have brought to the film instead.
Shannon’s fellow Boardwalk Empire alum Michael Stuhlbarg plays a scientist who is far more ambiguous and is thus that much more effective and intriguing to watch, while the ever-reliable Richard Jenkins offers solid support as Elisa’s best friend and neighbor, a gay advertising artist struggling with finding happiness.