Film Review – The Shape of Water
The Shape of Water
In their truest form, fairy tales, especially the ones that have lasted over time, have a dark undercurrent to them. They might be about something fanciful, but often there is something sinister lurking around the edges of the story in their original form. The Little Mermaid has her voice stolen and is turned into sea foam. At the end of Cinderella the Wicked Stepsisters get their eyes pecked out by birds. Rumpelstiltsken is all about dark menace. But this darkness makes tales resonate strongly. The new film The Shape of Water is in this same tradition of a fanciful story with dark undertones and tinged with lonliness. It features some terrific performances and a sense of whimsy through the darkness that is quite enjoyable.
Sally Hawkins stars as Elisa. She is a mute janitor who works at a government laboratory and lives a fairly solitary existence. She has a daily routine that she seems to be living through mostly by rote. Octavia Spencer plays her cleaning partner at work. In her dingy apartment building, she seems to have one solitary friend in Richard Jenkins’ character Giles who is a closeted gay man who toils away working on hand drawn ad campaigns in hopes of getting an old job back. They spend their evenings watching Mr. Ed or glamorous old movies on his small black and white TV. It is the 1960s and all of these characters are the kind of outsiders that era did not accept.
Into this world comes Michael Shannon who brings into the laboratory a new top secret project. The cleaning women are simply supposed to clean the lab and ignore the goings on there. But of course Elisa’s curiosity gets the better of her and she snoops enough to discover a fantastical creature they are keeping in a water tank. The creature design is a marvel. It looks to be mostly a high tech redesign of The Creature From The Black Lagoon. He is both dangerous and yet curious. Elisa is the only one to offer him any kindness when she can sneak in to see him. Over time they form a bond, but of course have to keep it secret. A tender and fantastical romance develops.
The best way to describe this movie is if Guillermo del Toro and Wes Anderson had a baby, this is what it would look like. The set design is dark at times, but also kind of purposely artificial. Giles even acts as a narrator from time to time, a frequent Wes Anderson device. And del Toro seems to be borrowing the gentle heart that is often at the core of Anderson’s movies too. This movie does have death and dismemberment in it. But it also has a lot of heart due in large part to Hawkins’ performance which is destined to be remembered come awards time. In the entire runtime of the film she says almost nothing but is captivating to watch. In fact, this year it is good to see a couple of strong examples of some of the best kind of reactive acting. Get Out earlier this year featured a terrific central performance by Daniel Kaluuya that was largely quite reacting to those around him. And Hawkins here is similar in that she is emoting through reaction. It’s often said that acting is about listening and both of these performers have done a stellar job of it.
Michael Shannon is making a full career of playing villains. He is quite menacing here. He is the head of the facility, but he is full of contempt for both the creature and most of those around him. One of his scariest moments is when he corners Elisa in the office and implies rape while not actually touching her at all. That scene proves especially timely given the sexual misconduct allegations in the news lately and could be shown as a great example of how a woman can feel menaced at work. Meanwhile, Richard Jenkins adds to his long career of sympathetic supporting roles. He is a gentle gay man who is simply alive in the wrong era. Pre-Stonewall homosexuals had an even tougher life than they do now and he wears that lonliness quite believeably.
The Shape of Water may be amongst Guillermo del Toro’s best films. Pan’s Labyrinth is still his glowing masterpiece, but this film is a strong entry in his oeuvre. His recurring working relationship with Doug Jones continues to pay off. Jones plays the creature, and once again he is able to make physically inhabit an alien looking being but still imbue it with humanity. Andy Serkis has become the master of imbuing CGI motion capture creatures with a soul. And Doug Jones has become the master of doing the same for full body practical effects creatures. This is the kind of acting that doesn’t often get it’s due but it is every bit as nuanced as the more marquee roles in Hollywood.
This film is fun, a bit sad, romantic, and visually interesting. It has a fairy tale sensibility and a good heart.