The Shape of Water, the latest from visionary writer/director Guillermo del Toro, is a fairy-tale crossed with a monster movie. It is a beautiful romance with great performances and amazing visuals. The story is not perfect, but that is made up for by the direction and acting.
The film, set in the 1950s, is about Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a lonely mute woman. She lives in an apartment next to struggling artist Giles (Richard Jenkins), her best friend. Her only other friend is co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). They work as cleaning women in a secret government facility.
One day, a human-sized fish creature (portrayed by Doug Jones) is brought into the facility, along with the intense and single-minded Strickland (Michael Shannon). Strickland wants to torture and kill the creature to learn its secrets before the Soviets can get ahold of it. Lead scientist Hoffstetler (Jewish actor Michael Stuhlbarg, also appearing in awards hopefuls Call Me by Your Name and The Post) thinks they can learn more by keeping the creature alive. Meanwhile, Elisa strikes up a tender relationship with the creature.
Making a story like this work is a delicate balancing act. It is so gentle at times that the slightest misstep could have caused it to fall apart. Casting is key. The actors need to embody their characters and make them believable. If they are unable to, some of the bigger, emotional, moments could receive unintended laughs. Thankfully, The Shape of Water is perfectly cast.
As Elisa, Sally Hawkins is brilliant. She does an excellent job conveying a world of emotions through subtle gestures, a smile or the way she signs (her sign language is translated into subtitles). Elisa is fascinated by the creature because it does not notice what she is lacking. Since their relationship is without dialogue, Hawkins uses her body to make viewers understand and sympathize with her. She does an amazing job. She get ample support from Doug Jones who plays the creature underneath makeup and prosthetics. It would have been easy to go over the top, but Jones is relatively understated. He and Hawkins make it easy to understand why these two are interested in one another.
Additionally, they have a very good supporting cast. Spencer takes a routine character and makes it her own. I wish del Toro had been more imaginative when creating Zelda, but casting makes up for a lot. Shannon is great in a complex role. At first, Strickland seems like a cliché ignorant G-man. But in del Toro and Shannon’s (as well as co-writer Vanessa Taylor) hands he becomes intriguing. Richard Jenkins is likable and sympathetic as Elisa’s most reliable confidant. And Michael Stuhlbarg takes a plot device of a character and makes his conflicted motivations suspenseful.
But what makes this film special is del Toro’s visual flair. It starts in the opening, which shows an apartment flooded with water. It is a gorgeous shot that does not mean a lot narratively, but sets the tone visually. The next sequence introduces Elisa and does an incredible job of giving a sense of time and space. You can learn a lot about a person based on where and how they live. Since Elisa cannot speak, del Toro lets her home and routine speak for her.
You can always count on a del Toro film to look great. The Shape of Water does not disappoint. But it also is extremely well acted and has a charming story. There were a couple of moments that did not completely land, but that is a mild complaint. This is a wonderful film.
4½ out of 5
By Ben Pivoz
Ben’s Movie Reviews