Like H.P. Lovecraft, whose At the Mountains of Madness he’s long been trying to bring to the screen, Guillermo del Toro loves scary, slimy ogres–the sort that slither across dank floors and lurk in inky darkness. In addition to that creature-feature fandom, however, he boasts the eye of a sly social critic and the heart of a romantic, and that’s never been more apparent than in The Shape of Water , the Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth auteur’s entrancing fairy tale about a mute woman and a fish man whose interspecies love intersects all barriers.
Led by a phenomenal Sally Hawkins, it’s a fantasy casting in a familiar del Toro mold: all slick subterranean locales, affectionate classic cinema shout-outs, deftly detailed protagonists, and monsters of a decidedly human variety–and one that functions as a poignant parable about the ugliness of discrimination, and the transcendent beauty and power of “otherness.”
As del Toro’s camera wends its route through an apartment seemingly located at the bottom of the ocean, Richard Jenkins’ narration about” love and loss ,” and about a princess–cue the image of a slumbering female suspended in water above a couch–sets the film’s storybook-ish tone. The would-be royal heroine in question is Elisa Esposito( Hawkins ), a vocally impaired female who lives in that previously insured abode, which is actually dry and situated immediately above a movie theatre in 1960 s Baltimore. Across the hall is her dear friend Giles( Jenkins ), an artist struggling to reignite his alcohol-derailed career by drawing Jell-O ads, and whose appetite for the pies at local franchise eatery “Dixie Doug’s” is mainly due to his fondness for the young man( Morgan Kelly) running the counter. Able to communicate through sign language, Elisa and Giles are a pair of outcasts–he stuck in the closet and residing amongst cats, and she equally alone, their own lives defined by a daily routine that includes simmering eggs and defining a timer before get into a bath for a brief bit of self-pleasure.
Elisa’s partiality to the tub, as well as her mysterious gill-like neck scars( not to mention the fact that she was an orphan find as an baby along a riverbank ), are early indications that she’s inherently attached to the water. Thus, she procures herself naturally drawn to the mysterious new “asset” that arrives at the secret research facility where she works alongside chatty best friend Zelda( Oscar winner Octavia Spencer) as a cleaning lady. Encased in a tank, that subject is a mythological fish human( the always remarkable Doug Jones) who resembles Hellboy ‘ s Abe Sapien( also played by Jones) but cannot speak and is viewed by his government captors as the key to figuring out how to breathe in space. He’s a crucial pawn in the ever-escalating Space Race against the Russians, and for the man who dragged him from the Amazon to Maryland, Agent Strickland( Michael Shannon ), he’s a primitive specimen–viewed as a God by natives–to be abused with a cattle prodding, vivisected, and then thrown away.
Elisa soon develops a kindred bond with this merman, and her desire to protect him from damage is shared by Dr. Hoffstetler( Michael Stuhlbarg ), a Soviet snoop who objects to his communist boss’ desire to have the animal stolen or killed. The Shape of Water is consequently overflowing with pariahs, many of whom are either actively( Giles, Hoffstetler) or passively( Elisa) squelching their true identities–or, in the case of Zelda, are forced to behave submissively while suffering racist barbs. Anything unique finds itself in the crosshairs in del Toro’s tale, such that Elisa is also preyed upon sexually by Strickland, a military brute who opts that his cheery domestic spouse remain silent while he’s ramrodding her in bed, and who–courtesy of losing two fingers to the merman, and having them unsuccessfully reattached–is a animal whose rancid, rotten nature is plain for all to see.
Shannon is perfectly cast as the bigoted Strickland, nearly to a fault; after so many similar parts, there’s little surprise to his performance, to the point that one patiently waits for him to begin quoting from the Bible. An overarching air of predictability, in fact, is what keeps The Shape of Water from attaining true greatness, as del Toro telegraphs his material’s trajectory at the outset and then makes virtually every expected dramatic beat along the way. At days, one craves a bit more volatility; an instance or two of out-of-the-blue madnes, to upend the narrative’s coasting-along momentum, even though the director crafts each individual sequence with an attention to detail–regarding put, character, and mood–that’s enchanting.
There is one such astonishing moment: a glitzy 1930 s-style black-and-white musical reverie featuring Elisa and the merman dancing arm-in-arm that, like the classic movies Giles watches on TV–including a The Little Colonel clip featuring another mismatched but harmonious pair, Bill ” Bojangles ” Robinson and Shirley Temple–expresses The Shape of Water ‘ s old-Hollywood amour. Del Toro’s fondness for yesteryear’s cinema permeates the entire movie, felt in his painstaking design of interior and exterior spaces and in his sincere, irony-free sentimentality. Elisa and the merman’s relationship plays out not as a sardonic joke or as a soggy allegory but, rather, as a sweet affair between kindred souls( bonded by “animal magnetism” ), and orbited by other individual tales of racism and persecution that are equally imbued with empathy for the outsider’s plight.
The Shape of Water is another visual del Toro feast, its every damp locale colored in shades of wet, moldy green( save for evil Strickland’s sunshiny home ), and its humor lively, especially in a gag involving Strickland’s brand-new Cadillac.
Even better than its offhand wittiness, its aesthetic splendor or its shrewd social commentary, however, is its headliner. Ever since her breakthrough big-screen role in Mike Leigh’s 2008 movie Happy-Go-Lucky , the England-born Hawkins has been one of international cinema’s most distinctive results, and here, deprived of speech, she delivers a turn of guileless subtlety and heartwarming expressiveness. With a twinkle in her eye that indicates she’s quietly assessing everything around her, and a ferocious determination that shows itself during a passionate outburst against Giles, Hawkins never feels like the twee device that Elisa might, in worse hands, have turned out to be; on the contrary, “shes coming” across as both an everywoman securely grounded in reality and a regal maid transported from some old-school Disney fable. She’s magic.
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