“The Shape of Water,” or How I Learned to Stop Worrying, and Love the Fish. OK, OK, not a great joke, never claimed to be a comedian.
So here’s the rundown on this great new film from Director Guillermo del Toro. The picture takes place in the 1960s at a government run facility that appears to be used by intelligence personnel. Instead of following scientists or special agents, though, the film explores the life of Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a woman working as a janitor for the base.
It’s let on quite quickly that Elisa’s life is repetitive and lonely, with the only company in her life being a neighbor who works as an artist (Richard Jenkins) and a coworker named Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Her life changes, though, when a captured amphibian humanoid is brought into the facility. Elisa soon learns that the creature is intelligent, contrary to military agents, and can communicate. As a result, the two begin interacting and form a bond.
What’s offered in “The Shape of Water” is a strange, different take on a fairy tale, and it’s quite enjoyable. First of all, the concept of following one of the cleaners of a facility like this is new and interesting. That’s not an idea we’ve really seen before and it gives an audience a different perspective than most films, so that’s something that can hook people in quickly.
What really holds the attention of the viewer, though, is the relationship that blossoms between Elisa and the creature, often referred to by the agency as “The Asset.” The way it unfolds is compelling and actually quite endearing. It captures the initial intrigue, their early friendship and their growing affection for each other.
Part of what really makes this work is del Toro’s wonderful, visionary direction. Del Toro gives this odd tale gravitas and meaning. The entire concept is bizarre, but Del Toro crafts the picture in such an artistic way that an audience can buy into the situation taking place on screen.
The only real issue with the film is that while the concept is different, the story structure is actually quite formulaic. Story beats here aren’t too difficult to predict, from events happening in the second act to the film’s final scene, there are some familiar elements, here.
Still, the film sets itself apart from others, not just by the story, but also from its look. When the movie started, I did wonder why the movie took place in the early 1960s. But when considering the time period, it actually makes sense. Over the course of the 1940s-1960s, there was the Roswell incident, Area 51 rumors and Cold War CIA spying and experiments. Plus, “Creature from the Black Lagoon” came out in 1954. When taking all that into account, the time period seems fitting.
With that in mind, del Toro did not disappoint. Everything looks straight out of that era, especially the government base which is filled with early era computers and gizmos all over the place. From a visual standpoint, though, it was more than just the setting. From moments of suspense involving the government personnel to sequences of intimacy with the lead characters, del Toro gives each scene tremendous detail and care.
Giving the film its emotional core, meanwhile, was Sally Hawkins who gives a great performance as Elisa. No dialogue, no problem. Hawkins is wonderful and charming as the silent character, portraying Elisa as a strong, caring woman who for the first time in her life found something to become attached to. Her growing affection for the creature is very convincing, making it all the more beautiful.
The supporting cast round out the movie really well, too. Both Jenkins and Spencer give the picture more human elements, playing the sort of ‘every person’ character who are onlookers to the story. Their characters see both the humor and the seriousness in the whole situation, and these subjects translate to the audience thanks to the portrayals.
Michael Shannon also deserves credit for his fun turn as the primary antagonist of the picture. His character, Richard, first comes across as a basic Men in Black agency type figure, but the movie ends up digging into who he really is and how he operates. These moments are really made complete by Shannon’s villainous portrayal.
Even though it has a familiar, formulaic structure, “The Shape of Water” is a beautiful, different and enjoyable movie to watch. It’s one of del Toro’s best for sure. 4.8 out of 5.