Film Review: The Shape of Water

Guillermo del Toro makes you believe in cross-species attraction in this beautifully crafted fantasy tale of a mute cleaning woman who bonds with an exotic amphibian.
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The Shape of Water marks a gratifying return to his fantastical roots for director Guillermo del Toro, following his big-budget genre excursions with Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak. His new film defies genre: It’s a fairytale, a sci-fi fantasy, a cross-species love story and a Cold War thriller all wrapped up in one gorgeous, visionary package.

The screenplay by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor centers on Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a lonely mute (with hearing intact) who works as a cleaning woman at a top-secret government laboratory in the early 1960s. Now, more than ever, there’s a reason for that secrecy, since the lab houses a unique, mysterious amphibian creature captured in the Amazon. That find is overseen by Strickland (Michael Shannon), a government agent stricken by Cold War paranoia and not averse to disciplining the creature with an electric cattle prod. The tale that ensues isn’t “Beauty and the Beast” but “Mousy and the Misunderstood,” as Elisa senses there’s a profound soul inside the gilled curiosity she encounters while snooping around the tank where he’s being held. Soon, she’s wooing him with the hard-boiled eggs she brings for lunch and the big-band records she plays for him. A most unlikely bond is sealed.

When Elisa learns that Strickland plans to have the creature vivisected in the name of research, she begins plotting his escape, abetted by her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), an equally lonely, gay commercial illustrator, and her work buddy Zelda (Octavia Spencer). An unexpected ally is the lab’s Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who champions a more humane approach to the creature but also harbors a secret agenda.

Through sheer conviction in his scenario, del Toro takes The Shape of Water places that would ensnare a less skilled filmmaker. In other words, he believes in his love story and he goes there, with a bold sensuality that transcends the barriers a reality-based narrative would impose. The fable-like atmosphere is enhanced by the stunning, enchanting period production design of Paul Denham Austerberry, every frame pure visual pleasure (and on a jaw-dropping $19 million budget!).

The production team’s meticulous work is matched by the commitment of the actors. Hawkins, following her recent lovely performance in Maudie, is completely endearing as the gentle but determined Elisa; still waters run deep in this surprising character. The anguish and passion Hawkins shows in the key sequence when she urges Giles to join her mission should earn her an Oscar nomination. That consistently good character actor Richard Jenkins is poignant and compelling as Giles, a man beaten down by life who becomes a reluctant hero. Spencer, not surprisingly, is a warm and appealing presence as Zelda, and Stuhlbarg brings conviction to his multi-layered role. Michael Shannon may be typecast as the evil, sadistic Strickland, but he sure does sadism well.

Finally, The Shape of Water finds del Toro collaborating for the fifth time with actor Doug Jones (he was the creepy Pale Man in the director’s acclaimed Pan’s Labyrinth), who plays the creature while encased in makeup and a persuasive scaly suit and provides him with heart and regal dignity. The nervy conceit of the film wouldn’t work without him; Jones and del Toro make you believe in this most audacious of love stories.

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