Warning: This review may contain spoilers
Can one really call a film a classic love story when the romance involves a mute orphan and a sea creature? Guillermo Del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” makes the case in favor in magnificent style.
Set in Cold War-era 1962, the movie is a sumptuous visual affair with elements of old Hollywood romances, musicals and B-movie horror films, all woven together with a fairytale whimsy. From the opening aquatic dream-like credits to the closing scene, Del Toro delivers a world on the periphery of reality.
Sally Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito, a mute orphan — a princess without a voice, as the narration tells us — who works as a cleaner at the Occam research lab, a quasi-government research facility, with her Zelda Fuller, played by Octavia Spencer. Elisa is a creature of routine — she boils eggs every morning, masturbating in the bath during the eight minutes it takes for the timer to go off, delivers breakfast to her friend and neighbor Giles, played by Richard Jenkins, before arriving at work with barely a minute to spare as Zelda holds her place in the clock-in line.
One day her routine is interrupted as a new “asset” is delivered to the lab where she is cleaning. Elisa looks through the glass of the container and we get to see the first glimpse of the creature. Richard Strickland, played by Michael Shannon, is in charge of the asset. Shannon is brutally sadistic, wielding his power over the creature with a cattle prod, which he dubs the “Alabama howdee-do.
As time passes, Elisa forms a connection with the amphibious creature, when she finds out that the government plans to vivisect the creature, over the objections of scientist Dr. Robert Hoffstatler, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, Elisa makes a plan to save him.
Creature actor Doug Jones plays the amphibious man with a real pathos and charm. The actor, who played Abe Sapien in Del Toro’s “Hellboy” films, conveys much through his physicality. Of course, CGI is involved, but there is much to be done by the actor in the suit and the audience is given a character we can believe in.
From here on, the film shifts to a noir thriller. Can Elisa save the creature? Will Strickland catch on? The film moves on apace, with just the right amount of tension.
This is a marvelous film that showcases the best of Del Toro’s imagination. The Mexican director’s 2006 masterpiece, “Pan’s Labyrinth,” transported viewers to a completely different world. “The Shape of Water” transports us to a fantasy world that is slightly askew from reality, yet is fully accessible. Its inhabitants are outsiders in this outside world. Elisa is mute, Giles is gay, Zelda is black — all, like the creature — marginalized, seen as “less than.”
The film is resplendent with superb performances. Hawkins tells her story wordlessly, using her body with a fluid musicality. The way she holds her fingers and hands is balletic, and there is a strong element of old Hollywood musicals, which she watches with her best friend Giles. Yet her slim frailty belies a steely resolve, and she is a true feminist heroine. In any other year, she would be the frontrunner for an Oscar, but Francis McDormand’s “Three Billboards” performance seems to be an unstoppable juggernaut.
Like Elisa, Jenkins’ Giles is a character out of time. He even says that he feels as though he was born too late or too early. Being an older gay man in 1962 is to be isolated and alone. Jenkins, as usual, brings nuance and pathos to the part and is a serious contender in the supporting actor category. Octavia Spencer seems to have cornered the market on the slightly sassy minority best friend, and she is always entertaining.
Shannon’s Strickland is a caricature villain, but that is not a criticism. Nobody does brooding menace like Shannon, and he adds that extra spark to what, in lesser hands, could be a simple two-dimensional baddie. Stahlberg’s Hoffstatler is more than he seems and brings a sterling performance to the proceedings.
Elisa and Giles watch the black and white TV and dream of the Hollywood musicals — there is a nice fantasy dance sequence — and “The Shape of Water” evokes the dreamy love stories of the 1930s, when the world was simple and a boy and a girl could fall in love despite everything. Of course, in this case, the boy is a fish-man, but the principle is the same.
Del Toro’s screenplay, with Vanessa Taylor, draws on “The Creature from the Black Lagoon,” “King Kong” and “Beauty and the Beast,” among others, for its inspiration, but gives it a thoroughly modern twist.
“The Shape of Water,” more than anything, is a work of art. The color palette is beautiful with a swath of greens and blues that evokes the dampness of water and also a seedy, decrepitude to the city. Dan Laustsen’s cinematography evokes both a comic book and a film noir — everything is wet and dark, with the real light coming from the inner spark of the central romance.
Guillermo Del Toro has picked up every directing award this season and it would be no surprise if an Oscar is next. This is definitely a director’s film and his vision is on every frame. It is a noir sci-fi classic with all the heart of a sweet romance.
This valentine to B-movies is definitely on the A-list.
Rated R (for language and, presumably, interspecies sex).