The Shape of Water-2017
Director-Guillermo del Toro
Starring-Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon
Scott’s Review #705
Reviewed December 16, 2017
Director Guillermo del Toro creates a lovely Beauty and the Beast style film that is as gorgeous to look at as the story is intelligent and sweet to experience. Thanks to a talented cast led by Sally Hawkins, the film is part drama, part science fiction, even part thriller, but touching to ones heart and a lesson in true love regardless of outward appearances. The story was co-written by Vanessa Taylor giving it a needed female perspective to perfectly balance the traditional male machinations.
The setting is Baltimore, Maryland during the early 1960’s. Ongoing is the Cold War pitting the United States and the Soviet Union against each other- both mistrustful of the other side. Kindly and mute, Elisa Esposito (Hawkins) is a curious and whimsical young woman, who works as a cleaning lady at an Aerospace Research Center. When she stumbles upon a mysterious “shape” being held prisoner for experimentation purposes, she slowly communicates with and befriends the creature, eventually falling madly in love with him. The “asset” as the scientists like to call him is an amphibian/humanoid needing salt water to survive. Elisa sees an opportunity to help her love escape captivity and off she goes.
Hawkins exudes warmth and fills Elisa with courage and a determination that is astounding. Not to utter a word is a tough feat for an actor to challenge, but instead of words, Hawkins successfully provides a vast array of emotions to reveal how Elisa feels. Despite her “handicap” she is a strong woman and speaks her mind on more than one occasion using sign language to offer her frustration. Hawkins gives a fantastic and believable performance.
Cast in wonderful and important supporting roles are Richard Jenkins as Elisa’s friend and neighbor, Giles, a closeted gay man who works as a commercial artist. Jenkins fills this character with intelligence, heart, and empathy as he struggles with his own issues of alcoholism and loneliness- unable to be accepted for who he is. Octavia Spencer shines as witty and stubborn Zelda Fuller, Elisa’s best friend and co-worker. Zelda has her own domestic problems, but is forever there for her friend, and Spencer gives her character zest, humor, and energy. Finally, Michael Shannon plays the dastardly and menacing Colonel Richard Strickland, the man who found the “asset” in the rivers of South America and has a nice family. Each of these characters is written exceptionally well and each has their own story-line rather than simply supporting Hawkins character.
The audience becomes involved in the private lives of Giles, Zelda, and Strickland and we get to know and care for them- or hate them as the case may be. Giles, harboring a crush on a handsome pie-shop owner, is afraid to make his feelings known. Zelda, with a lazy husband, dutifully takes care for her man though she is as sassy as they come. And Strickland lives an all-american family life with a pretty wife and two kids, totally unaware of his shenanigans.
The film is really a gorgeous and lovely experience and by this I mean the film has a magical element. The opening and closing sequences, shot underwater, resound in beauty as objects float along in a dreamy way, the narrator (Jenkins) taking us on a journey to explain the events of the story. At its core, The Shape of Water is a romantic love story and my favorite scenes- those of Hawkins and the “asset” are to be treasured. Yes, the two do make love, which may be too much for some, but the scenes are tasteful and important to show the depth of the characters love for one another.
Cherishing is the way that Elisa uses both music and hard-boiled eggs to communicate with the “asset”. When Elisa imagines the two characters dancing, the sequence is an enchanting experience reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast. Other underwater scenes involving Elisa and the “asset” are tender, graceful, and filled with loveliness.
A key part of the film involves a story of intrigue between the Americans and the Soviets, and while both are portrayed in a negative fashion, the Americans are arguably written as more unsympathetic than the Soviets. Thanks to Strickland- abusive and vicious, and his uncaring superior, General Holt, we do not root for the government officials at all, but rather, the ordinary folks like Elisa, Zelda, and Giles, who are outcasts. Interestingly, Dmitri (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Soviet spy who is a scientist, is the only character working at the center who wants to keep the “asset” alive and is written in a sympathetic way.
My overall assessment of The Shape of Water is that it is a film to be enjoyed on many levels and by particular varied tastes- the film will cater to those seeking an old-style romance, complete with some tasty French music. Then again, the film can be lumped into a political espionage thriller, with a cat-and-mouse chase and other nail-biting efforts. Overall, the film has heart and truth and will appeal to vast audiences seeking an excellent film.