AFI FEST 2017: The Shape of Water FILM REVIEW
THE SHAPE OF WATER
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Doug Jones, David Hewlett, Nick Searcy
Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language
Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes
****1/2 out of *****
Photo: Fox Searchlight
In a secret government facility a budding relationship develops between a lonely mute cleaning woman and a recently captured creature in Guillermo del Toro's THE SHAPE OF WATER.
Bold or audacious are certainly two adjectives that could suitably describe Guillermo del Toro's latest film THE SHAPE OF WATER. However, if you are familiar with the director's films there really isn't anything bold or audacious about it. The themes explored and the characters he populates his film with are vintage del Toro. His affinity for the genre, especially the classic creature features, is well known and over the past several decades he has established himself as one of cinema's great storytellers. THE SHAPE OF WATER has the look and feel of the director's previous films, which are all great, but it's the elevated level of maturity and assuredness del Toro exhibits which makes the film beautiful, eloquent, poignant and masterful.
In the film, which is set in Cold War era America, Elisa, played by Sally Hawkins, is a lonely mute who doesn't have many friends and works as a cleaning lady at a high-security government facility. One routine day both she and her co-worker, Zelda played by Octavia Spencer, see a new experiment brought in by an armed government agent named Strickland, played by Michael Shannon. When Elisa sees that this experiment is alive her curiosity gets the better of her as she begins to visit this creature held captive, far from home, deep within the bowels of an unknown laboratory.
If you've seen the trailer or any of the marketing material, such as the above theatrical one sheet, then it goes without saying that this film is a love story. The saying "love is blind" is perfectly apt to describe the relationship which develops between Elisa and the Amphibian Man. Just the mere thought of it, imagine witnessing it, is sure to raise eyebrows and illicit uncomfortable giggles but thanks to del Toro and his actors we are fully empathetic with the characters plight and have been immersed in and acclimated to this place and time that one can accept that this connection is no more frowned upon than your average interracial relationship. In other hands the film's foundation would have been played for laughs and exploited for all the sleaziness the conceit may entail but in the hands of del Toro it's incredibly touching and moving and when the line between two species vanishes and all you see are two kindred spirits who need each other to survive it becomes magical.
Sally Hawkins gives an award worthy performance as Elisa. On the surface she is quite convincing as a woman who must use other means to communicate, ie sign language and body language. Internally you can fully see the intelligence, sadness, longing and desperation which drives her character to do and experience the things that she does. Probably her best moment in the film is during a pivotal moment where she desperately pleads for a friend's help while demanding they acknowledge they fully understand what she is saying and why. Richard Jenkins is equally strong as Elisa's friend and neighbor Giles, an artist who is struggling in the career and relationship fronts. Michael Shannon is both engaging and menacing as Strickland. There's more to this guy then just being the proverbial head of a poisonous snake. Octavia Spencer is more or less the "straight man" in the film and she plays Zelda with compassion and intelligence. David Hewlett appears as Dr. Fleming the one man on the team who wants what's best for the "asset." He's the antithesis to Shannon's Strickland and is as equally complex in terms of his character and motivations. Not to be forgotten is Doug Jones as the Amphibian Man. Lacking any dialogue and hidden beneath full prosthetic make up, Jones effectively conveys the intelligence, compassion, honor, sorrow and desperation within the character.
Guillermo del Toro is a director firing on all cylinders with his latest film. His love and appreciation for the genre and especially for classic films like THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and KING KONG (1933) comes shining through. One of the great things about movies is the opportunity to spend time in a world which never before existed until it graces the silver screen. While the time and location is familiar, del Toro has created a period where monsters are real and despite some setbacks love truly is boundless. The conceit may not have worked if that wasn't put into place. del Toro reunites with cinematographer Dan Laustsen and the film is beautiful to look at. Two sequences in particular stand out where one involves water and the other an unexpected dream sequence sure to bring smiles and perhaps a few tears. The effects work by Legacy Effects Studios is top notch and truly evokes the legendary Gill Man of yesteryear.
THE SHAPE OF WATER may not be perfect but it is hands down one of the best films of the year and certainly del Toro's best film to date. The world, the period, the rich characters and the poignant story are captivating, compelling and entrancing. The film's overall message deeply resonates despite the fact that the pillars of its foundation are not of the same species. del Toro's decidedly adult fantasy reminds us of why we go to the movies and why we're never too old to hear about a fable about girl meets boy even if the boy isn't human.
***** = Outstanding ****1/2 = Excellent **** = Very Good ***1/2 = Above Average
*** = Good **1/2 = Mediocre ** = Fair *1/2 = Poor * = Bad 1/2* = Abysmal