In his new movie, “The Shape of Water”, director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) creates a fable that seamlessly moves among several genres. He has created a horror-movie-inspired monster, brought as a captive into the cold war austerity of a government laboratory; Russians spies provide film noir style intrigue; an escape caper is planned; fantasy, sci-fi, romance, movie nostalgia, and dry humor are mixed in. Yet, it all hangs together as a lovely piece of directorial art. While I expected some mild form of monster film with a strange romantic twist, I was delighted to find myself swept up as an observer of a piece of fine art on film.
The Shape of Water in fact won two Golden Globe awards: one for Best Director and the other for Best Score. It will no doubt rank among the most nominated films for Oscars this year. Most reviewers are giving it all the stars (or chilies) they can.
The film begins by introducing us to the daily life of Elisa Esposito, played by Sally Hawkins, for whom the role was written. Elisa works with Zelda Fuller (Oscar-award-winner Octavia Spencer) cleaning a national laboratory on the night shift. Elisa is mute, but Zelda is always talking, so their friendship is an easy one. Both Zelda and Elisa’s neighbor Giles (Richard Jensen), who seem to be her only friends, read her sign language and speak up for her when interpretation is needed.
One night at work, Elisa and Zelda witness the arrival of a captive, new specimen for the lab. There is tight security around the delivery of this creature, which turns out to be an amphibious man from the Amazon. Elisa’s curiosity and compassion lead her to strike up a clandestine friendship with the grossly misunderstood aquatic man. He is treated harshly—as are most beings we consider “different.” Only one scientist in the lab, Bob Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg — Edward G. Robinson in Trumbo) advocates for keeping the creature alive to learn from interacting with it.
The antagonist in the story is security chief Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon who played Elvis in Elvis and Nixon), who brought the creature from the Amazon. Camera angles and lighting begin to illuminate a nasty character in this Strickland giving him a melodramatic edge. We begin to wonder if the amphibian man can survive his ill treatment? What will the scientists do to him? What will be the result of Elisa’s kindness to the creature?
This last question is easily answered by seeing the movie’s rating: “R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language.” This is no innocent live-action comic book for kids. At the same time, this is not a horror film, a monster movie, nor is it terribly grotesque. Mature movie-going audiences may open their hearts to this film. It is beautifully wrought and Hawkins’ character is captivating. The creature’s attributes are fascinating to watch—horizontal eyelids, a cooing purr, and scaly skin. Sexual activity is clearly indicated in the film but is not graphically depicted. And water is said to appear in nearly every scene. You won’t want to miss this one!