WHAT’S THE DEAL: Guillermo del Toro’s whimsical new period film is a love story/monster movie/cold-war thriller hybrid that follows the special relationship between a mute cleaning woman (Sally Hawkins) at a top-secret government facility and its captive, a thoughtful amphibious creature (Doug Jones) of unknown origin.
WHY SEE IT: Guillermo del Toro is a passionate cinephile, and THE SHAPE OF WATER is a unique, reverse take on the classic BEAUTY AND THE BEAST concept nicely wrapped up as a love letter to some of del Toro’s favorite film genres. Part CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, part AMELIE, SHAPE chooses a refreshing point of view to frame its tale of resolute outsiders vs. the authoritarian establishment. Sally Hawkins delivers an engaging, nuanced performance as the film’s heroine, Elisa Esposito, a member of the “unseen” support staff amid stuffy uniforms and early ’60s ideals who approaches each day with dreamy optimism despite perceived appearances. There is the sweetness of life’s simple pleasures and the harsh reality of bigotry in this world that del Toro paints for her, but Elisa never seems to skip a step despite her humdrum routine. Still, she wants more personal satisfaction. She wants love. And her curiosity regarding Doug Jones’ unnamed entity quickly transforms into subtle desire.
A tender relationship with a fellow sensitive soul is formed, and its warmth and humor buoys this at-times tense genre casserole that can veer into dark territory. This interspecies love affair could also have rubbed audiences the wrong way (see Adrien Brody’s animalistic indulgence in 2009’s SPLICE for shock value reference), but in the capable hands of del Toro, it makes sense and also deepens this fable considerably.
Beyond the brisk, intelligent storytelling, the detailed period production design, and the memorable soundtrack with wonderful period tune choices, what elevates THE SHAPE OF WATER is its remarkable cast. GdT has assembled top-rate performers alongside Hawkins, each the ideal embodiment of their many-shaded characters: Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, and of course Doug Jones all crackle. I can’t imagine this film being better with any other ensemble.
THE FLICK FLACK: I’m hard-pressed to find much flack with THE SHAPE OF WATER. I wholeheartedly enjoyed this cinematic escape, and highly recommend it — albeit to mature audiences, given that there is plenty of adult content baked into this fantastic tale. If I were to nitpick at all, it would be that I felt the design of the creature (Doug Jones deserves a special award for his many shining performances beneath layers of latex) was too reminiscent of Abe Sapien in del Toro’s HELLBOY movies, a mild distraction that goes away soon enough.
NOTABLE NOTES: THE SHAPE OF WATER is a very personal film for Guillermo del Toro, who has been intensely involved with almost every aspect of the project, from co-writing, producing, and directing to guiding the marketing campaign. There is no need for him to contain his enthusiasm, yet sometimes he has a hard time not spoiling his own storylines. And when it comes to crafting a film that combines multiple genres, he’s acutely aware that there’s a segment of the audience that will feel a bit slighted. “The trickiest thing is people expecting a straight horror story will be disappointed, and people expecting a straight romantic story will be disappointed,” he told me in reference to his last film, the Gothic haunted tale CRIMSON PEAK. “But I think that … the more you speak the vernacular of the movie, the more you will enjoy it.” THE SHAPE OF WATER speaks a very specific vernacular, and the balance here should leave few wanting a different dialect.
MORE INFO: foxsearchlight.com/theshapeofwater
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