Single, mute cleaning woman Elisa Esposito's (Sally Hawkins) workday morning routine includes masturbating in the bathtub, boiling eggs and bringing her graphic artist neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) some nourishment before she heads off to the secret government lab where she works. The arrival of government agent Strickland (Michael Shannon) heightens the level of paranoia in the lab and when Elisa secretly makes contact with the aquatic creature (Doug Jones, "Hellboy") he's persecuting in the name of the space race, she rallies Giles and coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) to help her free the beast in "The Shape of Water."
Cowriter (with Vanessa Taylor, "Hope Springs")/director Guillermo del Toro's ("Pan's Labyrinth") latest is a beauty and the beast-like fairy tale set amidst the height of the cold war. One could speculate that this is del Toro's origin story for "Hellboy's" Abe Sapien, the amphibious creature Jones also inhabited who shares a love of the same type of music and hard-boiled eggs while learning an important lesson about cats, but the film also harkens back to his love of old monster movies, "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" the obvious inspiration here. The film is distinctly del Toro, yet it also recalls the films of Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, from "The City of Lost Children's" production design to the latter's "Amelie."
At heart, del Toro's story is a romantic twist on "E.T.," love the major theme. Elisa is lonely, Giles gay at a time when that sexual orientation is kept under wraps, Zelda subservient to an undeserving husband. Strickland is so needy for patriarchal approval, it's affected his psyche, his barely controlled aggression evident during sex with his wife. Then there is Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg, "A Serious Man"), a Russian spy who puts love of sentient beings above love of country when he becomes Elisa's unlikely coconspirator. Elisa's need for the romance she finds at the movies (she and Giles live over a theater) turns her compassion for Strickland's top secret find into a full fledged fantasy, one which she brings to life through sheer determination.
It is Giles who narrates the tale, calling his best friend next door 'the princess without voice' as we view her sleeping, her entire apartment filled with water foreshadowing what is to come. Production designer Paul D. Austerberry ("30 Days of Night") and cinematographer Dan Laustsen ("Crimson Peak") have given the film the greenish cast of subterranean moisture, further emphasized by a liberal use of subway tiles. Even the pies Giles is so addicted to are key lime. The 1963 setting allows for retro delights in Strickland's lab and the pie shop Giles frequents until his pass at the Pie Guy (Morgan Kelly, "The Lookout") goes horribly awry. Time and its passing are emphasized with frequent shots of clocks, watches, calendars and the time card Zelda always ensures has been punched for her friend. Movies are celebrated with Giles and Elisa's old b&w film habit, an impromptu sitting tap 'dance' one of the film's highlights. Creature design is top notch, the all important eyes fascinating with a nictitating membrane, the semitransparent lid that frogs have to see underwater, splashes of teal and gold adding beautiful dimension to the skin. Alexandre Desplat's score is pure Parisian romance.
The ensemble is wonderful, Hawkins's wordless (but for one brief fantasy scene) performance dreamy and moving. Spencer is always a plus, adding common sense and gravitas while Jenkins contributes melancholy, a man of dashed dreams. Shannon is forcefully intimidating, his rage palpable, a real villain which makes Stuhlbarg's decency all the more endearing.
"The Shape of Water" may be a simple fairy tale, but del Toro's telling gives it real human consequence and artful beauty.
Robin also gives "The Shape of Water" a B+.
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