Review by Allie Hanley
Anyone who has already seen “The Shape of Water” will tell you to go see it. In fact, they will probably stress to you that you need to experience it in the theater. The hard part comes when they try to explain what it’s about. How can something so strange be so good?
The short answer is simply Guillermo del Toro. No one realizes a fairytale on the big screen quite like del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth). Written and directed by him alongside co-writer Vanessa Taylor, “The Shape of Water” is a rich, complex and enchanting story told with heart.
It’s the 1960’s, and Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) splits her days and nights between living in an apartment above a movie theater and working nights as a janitor at a government science installation. She’s a great listener, as she is mute – she uses her hands to sign to her friend and neighbor, a gay artist (Richard Jenkins) whose artistic career is in ruins from battling alcoholism. Both lead lonely lives and find solace spending time together watching romantic musicals on TV. At night, Elisa cleans the science lab alongside her other friend (Octavia Spencer) who comically dis’s her husband’s inability to do much of anything without her help.
Suddenly while cleaning, a strange metal container arrives along with a stern and determined man (Michael Shannon) who explains that “the asset” has arrived after he mysteriously caught “It” in South America.
“The asset” catches both ladies interest but when they are asked to clean up a bloody mess and Elisa finds two severed fingers laying in a pool of blood, she becomes keen to discover what or who is “the Asset.” Essentially, “The Shape of Water” is about the bond that develops between Elisa and the creature in the metal container.
“The Shape of Water,” is difficult and probably why the trailers are full of spoilers. In fact, you can guess the entire story from the trailers. However, the magic of “The Shape of Water” isn’t in knowing what’s going to happen next, but in the performances of the actors and how the story is cinematically told. That’s a rare thing – to see a film that holds few surprises but is still utterly compelling.
Despite Hawkins lack of dialogue her use of physical acting is key to her compelling performance in which she emotes compassion and empathy for her character’s lonely life. The entire story hinges on Hawkins performance and her ability to get the audience to believe in the possibility that a human would fall in love with a creature. Without that, you would have some great actors on the screen but no heart or conviction for the characters. Hawkins makes you believe in love, hope, and even possibility.
It’s a rare thing to see on the screen and in a way reminds me of Amy Adams and her performance in last year’s “Arrival.” Though the stories are vastly different both performances depict both love and hope for the future.
The polar opposite character to Elisa is the equally brilliant performance that Michael Shannon brings to the character Richard Strickland, the government agent bent on becoming a success no matter the cost. Shannon’s emotions are expressed by his eyes and are at times so intense and so believable, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he gets hate mail from people in real life. He’s that good. As his character is cruel, not only to “the asset” but also those around him, he’s the guy you want to hate. It’s the little things Shannon does when he chews down on a hard piece of candy, or shocks the creature as it gurgles in pain, his presence on the screen is a powerful negative force that plays perfect counterpoint to Hawkins naiveté and the humanization of the creature. As much as I hated that character I loved Shannon’s portrayal.
I would be remiss not to also shower high praise upon Richard Jenkins who is both sensitive and compelling in his performance. His character suffers a heartbreaking romantic denial that would melt the most frigid heart.
Empathy, compassion, and love all play a strong role in this film and all of the key actors. It’s been a stellar year in film, and “The Shape of Water” easily makes the top ten and I have hope that the film will be recognized for its many achievements despite the unusual fairytale like story that is often overlooked by Academy voters.
The acting is stellar, but those performances would not be possible without the entire production team, including the maestro Guillermo del Toro, and the Director of Photography, Dan Lausten. “Shape of Water” is rated “R” and without doubt there will be adults who bring their kids, and just like “Deadpool” there are several sexual scenes which really aren’t for the kiddos. Del Toro does make movies for kids – just not this one.
“The Shape of Water” is part romance, part fairytale, and utterly enchanting. It is a fantasy told with nuance and love. The story of a human woman falling for an alien creature is told with such reverence and grace it seems natural – not a spectacle. The film is testament to the talent of one of the very best directors in Hollywood today, Guillermo del Toro, and his ability to not only write and direct, but to draw the very best talent in support of his film.
5 out of 5 stars
Rating: R (for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language)
Genre: Drama, Science Fiction & Fantasy, Romance
Directed By: Guillermo del Toro
Written By: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
In Theaters: Dec 1, 2017 Limited
Runtime: 119 minutes
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures