Guillermo del Toro's acclaimed 2018 fantasy film takes the old monster movies and views them from a fresh perspective. It's 1961, and the scientists and military have captured a monstrosity, a thing that should not exist. We follow the action from the point of view of a cleaning woman at a government facility.
The film changes directions when she decides to become involved with the life of the creature, held captive and subject to degrading circumstances.
The film riffs most obviously on The Creature from the Black Lagoon, but we've got allusions to Frankenstein, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, King Kong and the thousand iterations of Beauty and the Beast. In the second half, it recalls films such as E.T. and Free Willy. If you went to the film expecting E.T. for adults, you likely wouldn't be disappointed.
We have all kinds of metaphor at work. Our take-charge charwoman, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) was a foundling, found with injuries to her vocal cords through slashes in her neck. She can hear, but she cannot speak. Her closest friends include an African-American co-worker (Octavia Spencer) and a closeted gay artist (Richard Jenkins). The parallels among the real-world oppressions, the literally silenced heroine, and the captive "other" don't consistently work, but they at least provoke reflection.
Sally Hawkins (whose performance last year in the Maud Lewis biopic, Maudie needs to be seen) gives another stunning-- and nearly wordless-- performance. The film features superior acting overall, even among the occasionally stereotypical secondary characters. The film's key villains also benefit from strong performances that help transcend their limitations as characters. It's not that I couldn't believe people like them exist-- they clearly do-- but, because they're so one-dimensionally vile, the conflict lacks moral depth and the film loses dramatic power.
The visuals provide the film's other major strength. The Shape of Water features beautiful cinematography and impressive effects, with the tech used in service of the story. In addition to a credible Gill-man, we have a fabulous view of a slightly rundown urban neighbourhood, the streets of recent history turned into a fit setting for a fairy tale. I could not see the seams between CGI and set, set and location. I know Toronto fairly well, and it's unrecognizable here as 1961 Baltimore, Maryland.
It's not a perfect film. I found the opening mesmerizing; I recognize that some viewers will find the pacing a little slow. Others will be at odds with the second half, which turns the film into something a little too familiar. I personally remain uncertain about the ending. Even for a fable, it feels too obvious. Nevertheless, The Shape of Water deserves its widespread acclaim as a decidedly adult fairy tale filmed by a director with an obvious love for the art of cinema.
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Written by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor
Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito
Michael Shannon as Richard Strickland
Richard Jenkins as Giles
Octavia Spencer as Zelda Fuller
Michael Stuhlbarg as Dr. Robert Hoffstetler
Doug Jones as Creature
David Hewlett as Fleming
Nick Searcy as General Hoyt
Stewart Arnott as Bernard
Nigel Bennett as Mihalkov
Lauren Lee Smith as Elaine Strickland
Martin Roach as Brewster Fuller
Allegra Fulton as Yolanda
John Kapelos as Mr. Arzoumanian
Morgan Kelly as Pie Guy
Marvin Kaye as Burly Russian
Wendy Lyon as Sally
Cody Ray Thompson Cody Ray Thompson
Madison Ferguson as Tammy Strickland
Jayden Greig as Timmy Strickland
Deney Forrest as Lou