The Shape of Water
A Creature Romance
Guillermo del Toro is well known for the non-human creatures that have populated his movies from Pan’s Labyrinth to the Hellboy franchise and the original Pacific Rim film, but while some may consider him a “romantic filmmaker” in terms his classical Hollywood style and the fantastical worlds he creates, he is not really known as a director of romantic films. But with his new film, The Shape of Water, Del Toro pulls off an impressive trick by combining the creature feature with a classic Hollywood-style romance.
Sally Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito, a mute woman who lives above a movie theater and works nights on the cleaning crew of a mysterious government facility. She is there when a security agent brings in the facility’s latest asset, a humanoid amphibious creature referred to in the credits simply as Amphibian Man and never given a name in the film. He has been brought here from the rivers of South America where it is said he was worshiped like a God, but the American government’s only plan is to kill him so that his anatomy can be studied before the Russians have a chance to do the same. The Russians are involved, but they are more concerned with simply keeping him out of the hands of the Americans than in studying anything about the creature itself.
Meanwhile, Elisa has been finding her way into the lab where she develops a bond with the creature. She appreciates his attention, because he does not look at her as if she is incomplete for not being able to speak. Because of their bond, she cannot allow anything to happen to him and so she recruits her neighbor and co-worker to help her extract him from the lab and save him from becoming an anatomical study.
The romance between a woman and a creature that is not human will likely rub some people the wrong way—especially since this movie does not shy away from the idea of sex between the two characters—but anyone who is willing to put that aside and simply go with the story is in for quite a treat. It all starts with the lead performance by Sally Hawkins who is luminous in this (nearly) speechless role. Her performance reminded me a lot of Audrey Hepburn, whom she apparently studied while preparing for the role.
Opposite Hawkins is Del Toro regular Doug Jones, who performed as Amphibian Man practically whenever possible in costume and makeup, making it easier for the two romantic leads to interact. This results in them having excellent chemistry, despite one being a human and one essentially a fish person. And neither of the characters speak, which makes their performances and resulting chemistry that much more impressive as it is done mostly with body language and facial expressions. Doug Jones has performed these kinds of roles often for Del Toro and is consistently terrific, and yet he has not gotten as much praise or recognition as his contemporary Andy Serkis. But this movie’s early success will hopeful ignite a change in that.
The two leads are supported by some of Hollywood’s best character actors, who are each given a fully rounded character and are not simply there to advance the plot. Richard Jenkins delivers one of his best performances as Elisa’s closeted gay neighbor who finds some purpose in helping her rescue Amphibian Man from incarceration, while Michael Stulbarg is great as a Russian spy who finds his heart conflicting with his mission. Few actors play the creepy government villain right now better than Michael Shannon and Octavia Spencer always brightens up a movie.
These actors all get to play in a stunningly realized world created by Del Toro and his staff. It is a world that is realized out of a Cold War era science fiction film, but given such a sheen that the visuals radiate off the screen. I also appreciated the director’s blending of genres, even including a touch of the Hollywood musical.
The Shape of Water is a whimsical romantic fantasy that felt old-fashioned in the best way possible. Del Toro’s appreciation for the classical Hollywood style drips of the screen in every frame and yet, the movie is not without its modern touches. The result is an engaging, terrific movie that I enjoyed throughout.
The Shape of Water is rated R for “sexual content, graphic nudity, violence, and language.” There are a couple of nude scenes with suggested sexual acts as well as a few scenes of sudden and shocking violence.
Courtesy of a local publicist, Jeff attended a promotional screening of The Shape of Water.