When I first saw “Pan’s Labyrinth” in 2007, I was horrified by the monsters and fantastic creatures that lurked in the maze that captivated a young girl. When I discussed the film with my best friend, she said she was more terrified of the horrors of man, in the form of a cruel stepfather to the young heroine in the time of Francoist Spain. I began to look at director/writer Guillermo del Toro’s films differently from that point on, especially as he returned to form with the enchanting but destructive “The Shape of Water.”
Sally Hawkins is Elisa, a mute cleaning woman working the midnight shift at a government facility in 1960s Baltimore. Her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay artist who relies on freelance work from his former employer, shows her love for musicals in a set of apartments above a movie house. Elisa’s supervisor is Zelda (Octavia Spencer), an African American who is also her hand and interpreter. Elisa’s world opens when a sea creature and its Texan handler Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) are brought to the research facility. For the government, the creature (Del Toro regular Doug Jones) is a source of information – if it’s useful for study or for weaponization. For Elisa, he is the only being who understands her. Through sign language and music, the two form a bond that empowers Elisa into action.
Unlike “Pan’s Labyrinth,” everyday man is the obvious monster in “The Shape of Water.” The film starts with Giles narrating the beginning of a fairy tale when a princess is floating inside an urban aquarium. It’s magical and beautiful and warns the audience of the monsters in her world. Strickland is a racist, sexist and disabilist bully who communicates with aggression and anger. He is also the blue-ribbon example of the post-McCarthyism American man – a war veteran, husband of a perfectly groomed blonde and father of a boy and a girl. He walks tall and talks hard. He tortures the creature with the justification that he will be rewarded. There are little monsters throughout the film who are just as greedy or hateful.
Flipping the script, Elisa sets off on a mission to save the creature. She’s a voiceless soul who connects with a defenseless being that some have worshiped as god. Along this plan, del Toro shows how media, advertising and consumerism blankets over the hatred waiting to erupt. Everything down to what is on the televisions is a reflection of what is under each character’s American skin. Was the 1960s such an ideal time? Was the desire for a sunny, mid-century home, a healthy brood and a Cadillac in the driveway what America was all about? Del Toro says no with the choice of characters having the voice of logic – Giles and Zelda.
But del Toro also gives a salute to cinema, with the beautiful Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres in Toronto as examples of true movie heaven (I recognized the beautiful balconies and screen immediately and made sure to stay for the credits for confirmation.) He includes golden age musicals and monster classics. But I can’t help but to feel that are some winks of Tim Burton and John Waters here. He’s even inspired by the cast he recruited for this film – four of the best actors in the industry who are usually assigned to supporting roles in big films and starring role in independent ones.
While there are so many layers in this celluloid onion that is “The Shape of Water,” the storytelling is pretty simple with squirts of silly moments thrown in, like how Strickland makes a Cadillac look so small when he’s driving it or Zelda’s endless chatter about her lazy husband. Some fans of “La La Land” may role their eyes at this version of Hollywood dreamers, but del Toro didn’t make this film for them. “The Shape of Water” is not on the same greatness level as “Pan’s Labyrinth,” but it is so close to it. Admittedly, however, I was in a puddle at the end of it. I needed something to tug my heartstrings.
4.5 out of 5 stars
“The Shape of Water” is hauntingly beautiful and emotionally powerful. Beauty meets her Beast in this dark fairy tale brought to life by visionary director Guillermo del Toro. The enchanting and offbeat fantasy finds love and hope among the loneliness and pain felt by its outsider characters. It’s also a lovely ode to cinema for those of us who love movies.
“The Shape of Water” is set during the Cold War in 1960s America. Mute and gentle janitor Elisa (Sally Hawkins) works overnights at a secret government laboratory in Baltimore. Living above a movie theater, Elisa spends a lot of time watching musicals with her closeted gay neighbor, unemployed artist Giles (Richard Jenkins). Her only other friend is her African-American supervisor and interpreter, the protective Zelda (Octavia Spencer).
Elisa is intrigued when a mysterious, amphibious creature (Doug Jones) is brought to the facility and chained up in a water tank. Unable to communicate through conventional means, the two form a strong kinship by performing sign language to each other and listening to music.
But their unusual relationship is threatened by cruel government agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who wants to torture and dissect the creature for research. As Strickland closes in, Eliza is determined to save the creature and calls on her friends for help.
“The Shape of Water” is closest in feel to del Toro’s dark masterpiece, “Pan’s Labyrinth.” The director is known for his mastery of visuals, and “The Shape of Water” is a gorgeous film to behold. The film is bathed in a palette of greens, imitating the murky glow of water. Elisa’s milky, delicate features are beautifully contrasted against the creature’s blue-tinged, scale-covered body.
The imaginative fantasy is sweet and earnest as it tells the quirky romance between two kindred souls, one of whom looks like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Hawkins and Jones are dynamic together as the odd couple, able to express the gamut of emotions without saying a single word.
But the drama also explores the despair and solitude that connects its main characters. Elisa, the creature, Giles and Zelda are all “others,” existing outside the norms of society. Michael Stuhlbarg is a standout as Dr. Hoffstetler, the lone scientist who sees the beauty in the creature and wants to save it, not kill it.
The film tackles sexual repression, racism and sexism, the dark underbelly of a 1960s America fixated on having a white picket fence and a shiny new Cadillac. With his picture-perfect family, Strickland embodies this dichotomy. On the surface, he seems to have it all while his sadistic urges grow stronger.
As the master of movie monsters, del Toro makes us wonder who the real monster is. The film has bursts of gruesome violence as it tries to settle this question, which can be unnerving for moviegoers.
In “The Shape of Water,” del Toro infuses his love of cinema. The characters display an endearing awe of film, from watching it on the big screen of the movie theater to the small TVs in their apartments. The characters stop to admire scenes from classic musicals starring songstresses Alice Faye – one of my favorites who I grew up watching – and Carmen Miranda, as well as glimpses of Audrey Hepburn. Lovers of film will appreciate the wonderful homage.
“The Shape of Water” balances a fantastical premise with a grounded reality, building to an emotionally charged finale that had me in tears. The film recognizes that life pivots between happiness and hurt, but there’s still room for wonder. “The Shape of Water” makes you believe in fairy tales.
4.5 out of 5 stars