By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon and Doug Jones
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Written by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor
As a storyteller, Guillermo del Toro has always been in love with monsters, so it was inevitable that he would make a film in which the protagonist becomes enamored of one. Attached years ago to a remake of THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, he has re-envisioned its classic beast as an aquatic humanoid that one woman becomes very attached to in THE SHAPE OF WATER.
Del Toro’s latest, which he scripted with Vanessa Taylor, strikes a gentle balance between the two types of movies that have previously defined his career: healthy-budgeted English-language fantasies with recognizable casts, and Spanish-language features more intimately exploring relationships between humans and the paranormal. And in the manner of last year’s CRIMSON PEAK, it employs horror trappings in the service of what is actually a passionate romantic drama. Sally Hawkins stars as Elisa, a mute woman in 1962 Baltimore who works on the cleaning crew of a government laboratory alongside her friend Zelda (who, as delightfully played by Octavia Spencer, talks more than enough for the two of them). Though Elisa can’t speak, Hawkins’ marvelously expressive performance always makes it clear what she’s thinking, even when she’s by herself in her drab apartment.
Although lonesome, Elisa evidently has an active fantasy life and a sexual appetite; she’s seen early on pleasuring herself in her bathtub, a foreshadowing of her couplings with a most unlikely lover. At first, it’s just her curiosity that’s piqued when the lab receives a new “asset”: a very Lagoon Creature-like being billed only as “Amphibious man” and played by del Toro’s trusted and gifted regular collaborator Doug Jones, who here sets a new standard from under-prosthetics work. (The physical creations by Legacy Effects blend seamlessly with Mr. X’s CGI to completely sell the illusion of a living, breathing being.) Elisa finds herself drawn to the captured “monster,” who is cruelly mistreated by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the agent overseeing the project. Acting on both her growing attachment to the creature and the certainty that it is destined for vivisection under Strickland’s watch, Elisa plots to rescue him from confinement—though that scheme is not the movie’s endgame. Rather, its true focus is on how these two marginalized individuals find soulmates in each other—a truly tricky proposition when one of them is covered in scales and fins, but del Toro and his cast pull it off splendidly.
Though the scale of the film is small, del Toro is after grand emotions and gestures here. His signifiers are not subtle: Elisa lost her voice due to a vocal-cord operation that has left her with gill-like scars on her neck, and Strickland enters his first scene clad all in black from his shoes to his hat. There’s a passion to del Toro’s filmmaking, and all the performances, that raises the essentially simple story to the level of the operatic. Less than an extension of CRIMSON PEAK’s phantasmagorical romance, THE SHAPE OF WATER feels like a more serious expansion of the wonderful scene in HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY in which del Toro and Jones’ previous fishman, Abe Sapien, joins Ron Perlman’s demonic hero in a lovelorn rendition of “Can’t Smile Without You.”
Backing up all of the finely wrought emotion is equally masterful craftsmanship on all levels, from the aforementioned effects work to the stirring music by Alexandre Desplat to Dan Laustsen’s cinematography and Paul D. Austerberry’s production design, which gracefully bestow the tactile urban atmospheres with a veneer of the fantastic. THE SHAPE OF WATER offers an enrapturing showcase for visual and aural achievement while also lamenting the passing of forms of creative artistry: The movie theater below Elisa’s apartment draws single-digit audiences, and her good friend and neighbor, advertising artist Giles (Richard Jenkins), faces obsolescence as his painstaking painted images are supplanted by photo-oriented ads.
Most of all, THE SHAPE OF WATER reconfirms del Toro as an auteur who employs both old-fashioned and newfangled technique in the service of true, heartfelt emotion—and reveals that he was the right man for the CREATURE remake all along. Now that Universal has effectively kiboshed any further plans for its Dark Universe, could they please now give him the means to do his long-desired update of FRANKENSTEIN?