Movie Review: The Shape of Water

A film with spies, a sea monster and a romantic janitor is one of 2017s best

The Shape of Water (Tvář vody)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
With Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer

Guillermo del Toro has become one of the silver screen’s true visionaries. His latest film, The Shape of Water, takes B-movie conventions from the 1950s and ’60s and transforms them into a touching love story and adventure. It is del Toro’s most mature and accomplished film, and one of the best of 2017.

A mute cleaning woman named Elisa Esposito (played by Sally Hawkins) leads a lonely life and is friends with her neighbor, an old-fashioned advertising illustrator, Giles (Richard Jenkins), who has been struggling ever since photos became more popular than sketches. They are both, at least the way the tale is told, lost romantic daydreamers who have wound up on the short end of life.

Giles narrates the tale a the start and end, and also make some drawings related to it. It is up to the viewer to decide whether any of it is true, or if it is all just the daydream of a man who watches too much television.

The film is set in 1962 in an aquatic research center in Baltimore. Elisa has a close friendship with a fellow cleaner, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who speaks nonstop to make up for Elisa’s quietness. Zelda also knows sign language and interprets for Elisa. They make a good duo. Elisa likes the endless chatter and Zelda needs an audience.

The research institute gets a mysterious new addition, an aquatic life form captured in the Amazon. The military sees some potential in using the creature for secret projects. Adding a dark edge to the film is Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), a humorless operative who abuses the creature, is cold and domineering to his family and generally sees no good in anything new. He stands in for the values of the early 1960s, which from a modern point of view are less than enlightened.

The world that Strickland is trying to hold onto is the same one Giles tries to capture in his advertising illustrations, a place that is smiling on the surface but something a bit hideous underneath.

The characters obviously are on a collision course. The time of the film is the Cold War, and the film has hints of a spy thriller, but at its heart, it is a re-imagined horror film, but without the horror.

Director del Toro had at one time hoped to do a remake of Creature from the Black Lagoon, and film fans will quickly see how some of those ideas have been repurposed. Sharp-eyed viewers might also spot connections the director’s own Hellboy films, with its secret lab and similar water creature.

The film plays on the idea of broken dreams and makes much of the settings in a lower class Baltimore neighborhood. Sally and Giles live above a movie theater that has seen better days and has just shades of its former glory. The small apartments also could use a bit of repair. Giles, when he goes out, sometimes wears a hairpiece that he insists is a toupee and not a wig, again looking back to a better past.

Little bits of color are added throughout the story just to build the mood. Giles has a fascination with the unnaturally lime green pie at a local diner. It seems like a minor point but it becomes important. Colonel Strickland goes to buy a new Cadillac. The salesman tells him it is teal, the color of the future. Sally is associated with a range of watery blue colors; other characters have their own palettes.

Quick references are made to other films as well; del Toro clearly loves cinema.

The film rises far above the horror film and spy themes that it is blended from. The cast is a big help in that. Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, and Octavia Spencer all received Oscar nominations for their work. Michael Shannon was overlooked but has been nominated in the past. The film has 13 nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.

Some other nominated films have made stronger political or social statements. While The Shape of Water on its surface is pure entertainment, it does also contain a wide array of social messages about how we treat other people and what is truly important. The way it conveys those without making them seem trite is one of the film’s successes.

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