The Shape of Water is shaping up to be an awards-season contender, though it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea – or water. It’s a mesmerizing adult fairy tale co-written and directed by Guillermo del Toro (Pacific Rim, Pan’s Labyrinth). In a nutshell: the film is about a lonely mute named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) who falls in love with a fantastical sea creature (Doug Jones in a gilled wetsuit) being held prisoner in the high-security lab where she works as a cleaning lady. Sure, it all sounds kinds of weird, and it is – but it’s also a stunning film with some stellar acting.
The film is set against the backdrop of the Cold War, circa 1962. Elisa lives a quiet, isolated existence in a room above a classic movie theater near the waterfront in Baltimore. Her days are simple and routine and devoid of love, except for a platonic friendship with her gay housemate, Giles (Richard Jenkins) who refers to Elisa in the opening narration as a “princess without voice” – establishing the whole Beauty and the Beast fairy tale vibe. The Shape of Water goes shadowy where the classic ‘fish out of water’ comedy Splash went light, but both films share a certain commonality and conflict. Elisa upends her life to try and save the fish-man who wordlessly captured her heart, while government scientists aim to study/dissect the guy and prevent those pesky Soviets from getting their hands on him.
The supporting cast includes Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals, 99 Homes) as a creepy government agent with control issues who likes to wield a cattle prod; Michael Stuhlbarg as a scientist with a secret; and Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures, The Help) as a member of the cleaning crew that works with, and covers for, Elisa.
The Shape of Water skews more arty than mainstream but has elements that may serve to broaden the appeal. It pays homage to old Hollywood movies, is visually saturated in aqua blues and greens, and features a stirring score that seeps into the consciousness. It is rated R for mature themes involving, among other things, sexuality and water (including a bathroom scene that might turn some folks on, and others off). It doesn’t float to the top of my best movies list of 2017, but it’s still a good watch – especially for fans of director del Toro and Sally Hawkins (Maudie), who could sneak into a very competitive field of Best Actress nominees come Oscar time.
Arty Chick weighs in: I LOVED it! I’m a big fan of Sally Hawkins. (If you haven’t seen Happy Go Lucky, I highly recommend it!) She was also wonderful in this year’s Maudie. And I think her amazing turn as the mute lead in this film should make her a lot more bankable, and deserves an Oscar nod, too, so I’m looking forward to a lot more films with her quirky, lovable spirit. On paper this one sure sounded silly, but del Toro gave it his special magical realism juju and it sucked me into the fantastical land of mer-people and evil government experimentation. Yes, it’s arty, but it’s the most unusual love story I’ve seen in quite a while and well worth it for the visuals alone.