The Shape of Water, the latest film from visionary writer/director Guillermo del Toro (a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nominee in 2007 for Pan’s Labyrinth), is a fairy-tale crossed with a monster movie. It is a beautiful romance with great performances and amazing visuals. The story is not always the strongest, but that is made up for by the direction and acting.
The film, set in the 1950s, is about Elisa (Sally Hawkins, a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee in 2014 for Blue Jasmine), a lonely mute woman. She lives in an apartment next to struggling artist Giles (Richard Jenkins, also seen this year in Kong: Skull Island and LBJ), her best friend. Her only other friend is her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar this year for Hidden Figures). They work as cleaning women in a secret government facility.
One day, something new is brought in that changes Elisa’s life. It is a human-sized fish creature (portrayed by Doug Jones). Along with it comes the man who caught it, the intense and single-minded Strickland (two-time Oscar nominee Michael Shannon). Strickland wants to torture and kill the creature so he can learn its secrets before the Soviets can get ahold of it. The lead scientist Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg, who can also be seen 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 very delicate balancing act. It is so gentle at times that the slightest misstep could have caused the entire enterprise to fall apart. Casting in this story is key. All of the main actors need to be able to embody their characters and make them believable. If they are unable to do that, 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 is unable to speak, but does an excellent job conveying a world of emotions through subtle things such as small gestures, a smile or the way she signs when she talks to her friends (her sign language is translated into English subtitles). Elisa is initially fascinated by the creature because, unlike most of the people around her, it does not notice what she is lacking. Since their entire relationship is without dialogue, it is up to Hawkins to make viewers understand and sympathize with her feelings. She does an amazing job of this. She get ample support in this department from Doug Jones who plays the creature underneath lots of makeup and prosthetics. It would have been easy to go over the top in the role, but Jones is relatively understated. He and Hawkins make it easy to understand why these two characters are interested in one another.
Additionally, they have a very good supporting cast. Octavia Spencer takes a pretty routine character (the sassy black friend) and makes it her own. I wish del Toro had been more imaginative when creating Zelda, but casting can make up for a lot. Shannon, one of the best character actors working today, is great in maybe the best written role in the film. 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 intriguingly complex. The always enjoyable 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 more suspenseful than they would have been otherwise.
But what makes this film special is del Toro’s visual flair. It starts right in the opening moments, which show an apartment flooded with water. It is a gorgeous shot that does not necessarily mean a lot narratively speaking, but it definitely sets the tone visually. The next sequence is focused on introducing 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 her routine speak for her.
The film would not have worked if the creature looked too unnatural or too much like a special effect. The decision to use an actor to portray the character instead of relying on CGI is one of the reasons the film works so well. There is a humanity and intimacy between him and Elisa that would have been missing otherwise.
One thing that can always be counted on in a Guillermo del Toro film is that it will look great. The Shape of Water (118 minutes before the end credits) certainly does not disappoint in that regard. But it is also extremely well acted and has a charming story. There were a couple of moments that did not completely land for me, but that is a mild complaint. The modern day master of the dark fairytale has done it again. This is a wonderful film.
4½ out of 5
Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito
Doug Jones as Amphibian Man
Michael Shannon as Richard Strickland
Richard Jenkins as Giles
Octavia Spencer as Zelda Fuller
Michael Stuhlbarg as Dr. Robert Hoffstetler
David Hewlett as Fleming
Nick Searcy as General Hoyt
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Written by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor