Director Guillermo Del Toro describes his latest film The Shape Of Water as revolving around love, sex, and various things that concern him as a fully grown man, as opposed to how he emphasized childhood fears and dreams in his prior works. That’s certainly evident, but he also manages to weave in a wide variety of themes into this science fiction period piece set in the early 1960’s.
Prejudice, sexuality, and a tug-of-war between empathy and cruelty are all on display here, and these elements are made even stronger by the remarkably great performances of the cast. Del Toro also gives a fair amount of screen time to more of the cast than I was expecting. It’s a delight watching them all develop as the film progresses, and their arcs converge into the two main characters’ story quite well.
I’m not surprised Sally Hawkins is getting so much award consideration for her role as Elisa Esposito, a mute janitor who works a hush-hush government facility. Only able to communicate through sign language, her life is pretty mundane- outside of her bond with her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted gay artist who she goes on pie runs with. Her normal routine comes to an end when Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings a strange, large container to the lab. Was that a human-like hand she just saw through its window?
Eventually, Elisa discovers the creature inside (Doug Jones) isn’t entirely human nor amphibian, but it certainly has feelings. She sparks up a friendship with him, and they bond over things like the boiled eggs she brings for lunch and the swing records she plays while cleaning. It’s the one bit of happiness the creature gets to enjoy these days, between Col. Strickland tormenting him with an electric prod.
But the lab’s general Frank Hoyt isn’t impressed with the creature and wants him killed and taken apart for study. With the help of a Soviet spy posing as a doctor (Michael Stuhlbarg), an initially reluctant Giles, and her co-worker friend Zelda (a charming and witty Octavia Spencer), Elisa launches a plan to rescue the amphibian man, and discovers she has far more in common with her unexpected new friend than she imagined.
The basic idea behind The Shape of Water is very funny because it is an incredibly bizarre concept on paper. But to dismiss it as “that movie about the girl who falls in love with the fish” is sorely understating its power. The effective writing and character development combined with its enchanting atmosphere make it into a film that’s equally as impressive as it is weird.
One thing that elevates this movie is how seriously it takes the relationship between Elisa and the creature. What humor there is in this film is rather understated, and while we never see anything too explicit- Shape is pretty much a “soft R” movie- the narrative is totally unapologetic in how it wants to portray the level of intimacy and emotion between them, their biological differences be damned.
Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones also have some rather touching chemistry between them. Hawkins, in particular, gets so much feeling and personality out of her role as Elisa with a very minimal use of vocalization (save for one exception that I won’t spoil. Spencer is very appealing as Elisa’s close if droll friend Zelda, and Jenkins’ Giles has a wonderfully written, powerful and relevant scene in a diner when he tries to connect with the pie vendor.
Michael Shannon delivers another great villainous performance as the angry Colonel who desperately tries to recover the creature. Del Toro directs Strickland as a seemingly model white man in the Cold War era, with a television-ready family and a cool car (“You look like a man of the future”, a dealer tells him).
Dan Lausten uses some cool cinematography as his darker, more aggressive side emerges, shooting Shannon in bright interiors and then ominous, rainy shadows as he hunts down our heroes. The fish-man might not be as angry as Disney’s Beast, but Strickland definitely felt like his Gaston.
This is a visually impressive film overall, especially in its use of different hues of green and turquoise combined with some good camera work. A couple of scenes have some amazing underwater shots, and one was entirely done in black and white- and Alexander Desplat’s score made it all the more memorable.
At once, The Shape Of Water is able to convey a wide spectrum of sensations in its audience, and not just shock- but also wonder, joy, tragedy, fear and constant surprise. It’s one of those rare films that successes in a variety of ways- a movie with a confident, fully realized vision that doesn’t care how you feel about it.
There are a number of familiar story elements at play, but Del Toro has enough originality and passion on display here to make it worth a ticket. Easily recommended.