The Shape of Water is a Cold War era tale of strange love filled with director Guillermo del Toro’s boundless enthusiasm. It’s an R rated fairy tale mixing romance, horror, sci fi, comedy, and even musicals. Beyond its exploration of these genres, there are timeless and timely themes of loneliness, racism, classism, and Russian interference. For those familiar with del Toro’s previous efforts, we continue to witness his obsession with movie monsters and creature effects. It’s quite something to behold.
Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) lives a quiet existence, literally and figuratively. She’s been a mute since infancy and her daily routine is both humorously and sadly shown. By day, she’s hanging out with her starving artist neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), watching musicals and listening to his troubles. By night, she’s a custodian at a secretive government Baltimore facility alongside the chatty Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who regales Elisa with her troubles as well.
These routines are disrupted when a new asset is brought into her workplace. It’s an amphibian like creature from South America (brought to life by Doug Jones) that the U.S. government has obtained. His caretaker and torturer is Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon), who treats anyone that doesn’t look like him badly. A totally foreign creature from another world gets the brunt of it, but so do his wife and any underlings. Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) is the scientist tasked with studying Amphibian Man, but he’s got different motivations going related to the Soviets desiring this particular asset.
Elisa’s reaction to the new guest is different than anyone else’s. She takes sympathy on him – feeding the creature and playing him music. It’s a true attraction as she feels he’s the only one who communicates with her in a meaningful way. The romance that blossoms is one the audience must choose to go with. Truth be told, it’s not much different than the Beauty and the Beast angle if you really think about it.
The Shape of Water is a technical triumph of considerable proportions. The loving detail paid to the production design, costumes, special effects, and camerawork make this a visual treat. From that aspect alone, Water is a must-see.
The performance of Hawkins is a master class of expression with one’s eyes and movements. The picture wouldn’t work unless she nailed her part and she does. A particular scene where she reveals her true feelings about Amphibian Man to Giles is a high note. Speaking of Giles, Jenkins provides terrific support as the sympathetic friend also looking for love. Spencer shines as Zelda, who often serves as the audience’s mouth piece for the wild happenings going on. And Shannon creates a deliciously menacing villain to root against. He’s consumed with just “doing a good job” without thinking of the sickening acts he’s performing.
Like Tarantino or Spielberg at their best, del Toro is a filmmaker who clearly loves his job and adores the history of movies. The Shape of Water gives him a chance to dabble in multiple genres and put his own unique spin on them. His passion is infectious.
***1/2 (out of four)