del Toro nears perfection with ‘Shape of Water’
Nicholas Ottone | Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Magic. Guillermo del Toro’s genre-confounding film “The Shape of Water” is a wonderfully transporting adult fairy-tale that luxuriates in the intersections of sexuality, love and humanity. It is a movie enamored with movies, yet it retains an inextricable and unpretentious purity of self, an emotional core undiluted by any cheap homage. Part creature feature, spy thriller and romance, “The Shape of Water” largely avoids empty stylization, investing its heartfelt story with substance and painting it with all the shades of blue and green del Toro could muster.
“The Shape of Water” is primarily concerned with Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute janitor at a secret research facility, and her love of the Asset, a powerful amphibious creature that evokes memories of the “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” She plots to free him from the oppressive shackles imposed by the Cold War-era American military, embodied largely by the single-minded and intense Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon). Her friends, including her older gay neighbor (Richard Jenkins in a softly affecting turn) and talkative co-worker (Octavia Spencer, excellent as always), cover her tracks to avoid suspicion, as Russian spies attempt to capture the Asset for their own uses. The plot pits spies and generals against lovers, and the twists more than satisfy, even if the conclusion feels somewhat inevitable.
But a simple plot summary cannot describe the astonishing generosity of del Toro’s vision. The film’s adoration of the “Other,” whether an older gay man, a black woman, or a mute woman, is rarely subtle, but its significance is implicitly yet beautifully expressed through the top-notch ensemble’s fully lived-in performances. The script affords every major character an interior life and background that fleshes out its beautifully rendered world, and the actors match this giving spirit with aplomb. Sally Hawkins, in particular, grounds the film’s more fantastical elements with a spirited performance nonetheless invested with a deep well of emotion and an unwavering understanding of humanity. In a nearly wordless performance, Hawkins expresses more in a longing glance than many do in a monologue.
Few directors could pull off a tonal balancing act of this scale and prevent the entire enterprise from tipping into outright parody, yet del Toro manages to confidently guide viewers through deeply emotional scenes while also constructing a wonderfully tactile world. Dan Laustsen’s cinematography bathes the world with teals, greens and blues, and his camera confidently roams about the facility’s dark corridors and Elisa’s light apartment, revealing new facets of the beautiful production design with every motion. Alexandre Desplat composed an evocative score full of melodies dripping with passion yet consistently nails the tricky shifts into more pulpy genre territory. I have rarely seen a film so transporting, resembling a most lovely dream I wished would never end.
Yet I feel del Toro anticipates this reaction, and he constantly punctures the illusion with ugly incidents of racism, homophobia and misogyny, afforded in spades by its 1960s-era setting. Shannon’s Strickland, seemingly trapped in an advertisement’s vision of the American Dream, constantly reminds the Asset and Elisa of their lower status, of how society sees them as the “Other.” Contemporary parallels prove almost too easy, but what else are fairy tales but fantastical parables teaching important lessons? The film begins with Jenkins’ dulcet tones, narrating about “the princess without a voice,” warning of “the truth of these facts and the tale of love and loss and the monster that tried to destroy it all.” Against this backdrop of good and evil, del Toro fashions a narrative to impart themes of empathy, inclusivity, love, humanity and morality — yet despite this weight, the film rarely falters, remaining surprisingly light on its feet. “The Shape of Water” is, quite simply, magic.