Review | The Shape of Water | 2017

Shot in gorgeous shades of green, Guillermo Del Toro's The Shape of Water is a breathtaking fairy tale take on one of cinema's greatest monsters. Del Toro has always been fascinated with monster movies, and that love has informed much of his work, from Cronos (1993) to Pan's Labyrinth (2006) to Hellboy (2004) and Pacific Rim (2013).

Following in the footsteps of Pan's Labyrinth, The Shape of Water is a monster movie with a heart, a film about outcasts finding each other in a world that doesn't understand them. It's a romantic riff on The Creature from the Black Lagoon, wherein a mysterious half-man, half-fish creature (Doug Jones) is brought back form the Amazon and stored at a top secret government facility for study. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute janitor at the facility, is all alone in the world save for her aging roommate, Giles (Richard Jenkins), and her fellow janitor, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Each is alienated in their own way - Giles is gay and Zelda is black, and in the 1960s both were seen as a huge liability.

It is in this island of misfits that Del Toro sets his tale. Elisa soon discovers an affinity with the creature, who is treated only with violence by his military captors, lead by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), and responds in kind. In Elisa, however, he finds a kindred spirit, and she soon hatches a plan to break him out of the facility. Pursued by the military and a group of Soviet spies, Elisa and the creature form a unique bond that is all their own.

By turning The Creature from the Black Lagoon into a love story by way of Douglas Sirk, Del Toro creates a singular tale of interspecies relationships that takes on something much deeper than its potentially icky ramifications suggest. This isn't a film about bestiality, it's a film about those left behind by society finding kindred spirits, where societal taboos break down and the freaks find the love and acceptance they deserve, naysayers be damned. In that way, The Shape of Water feels very much like the film we need right now, a gentle and heartrending reminder that being different doesn't mean having to live a life alone.

After her tremendous performance in Maudie, Hawkins is having an incredible year, and her performance here is something deeply tender and soulful without ever uttering a word. She is matched by the peerless Shannon and the ever-reliable Spencer, proving that they're two of the finest actors working today. But one can't ignore the fine work of Doug Jones, who makes us care about this creature even under thick layers of impressive makeup effects. He and Hawkins are the heart and soul of the film, and their conviction helps sell Del Toro's often outlandish story.

Like a warmer and fuzzier Pan's LabyrinthThe Shape of Water is sumptuously designed in the way that all Del Toro films are, featuring impeccable production and costume design; not to mention a glorious score by Alexandre Desplat, whose lilting main theme burrows its way into the mind and carries us out of the theater on bittersweet wings. Everything about the film is just so lovely; even in the moments of graphic violence that so often appear in Del Toro's films, he manages us to show us the ugliness of the world without losing sight of its beauty. It is our differences that make us unique, and Del Toro understands that that is an asset, not a liability. This gentle fairy tale that reminds us that we are not alone, no matter how isolated we may feel. At once thrilling and stirring, The Shape of Water is a like a big, warm hug of a movie, wrapping us the warm embrace of an ocean of feelings that will dazzle the senses and make the heart soar. It's one of his finest achievements.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE SHAPE OF WATER | Directed by Guillermo Del Toro | Stars Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg | Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language | Opens today, Dec. 1, in New York and Los Angeles.


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