Love is a poetic curiosity that has escaped this critic, but it certainly has not escaped the notice of Guillermo del Toro in his latest film, the exquisitely poetic The Shape of Water. Notice that I used love, not romance. When you are cut from the same cloth, romance is unnecessary, where love finds a way.
Isn’t that poetic?
So is the script by Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor (‘Game of Thrones,’ Divergent, the upcoming live-action Aladdin). There is a fairy tale aspect to their script, based on Del Toro’s story, which brings a mute together with an undersea mutant, where they find the meaning love.
Set in 1962 Baltimore, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is part of the nighttime janitorial staff at the Occam Aerospace Research Center. The facility has taken on an ‘asset’ and it’s ‘handler,’ Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Elisa, who is was rendered mute, discovers the asset (Doug Jones) is a lonely amphibious humanoid, that the government wants to exploit for its own ends.
Sally Hawkins is superb as Elisa, though I preferred her role as Maudie earlier this year. Most of her funny moments were on display in the trailers leading up to the film; the most tender moments were saved for the film and they are worthy of the wait. Michael Shannon is plays the hard-nosed undertaker of a character. His scenes with Ms. Hawkins are sublime, but the character is not a dramatic stretch for him, though you can tell he had fun with the role.
Octavia Spencer is superb as Zelda, Elisa’s co-worker and friend. Her relationship with Elisa is uncanny as Spencer displays her sense of comedic sarcasm. As Zelda is Elisa’s ‘voice,’ Richard Jenkins plays Giles, the next-door neighbor who loves musicals and can draw like no one’s business is Elisa’s ‘vocal conscience.’ Giles is down on his luck, but his spirit is indomitable as someone who truly understands the human condition.
Michael Stuhlbarg plays Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, the humanist in the film. He is more interested in keeping the asset alive than he is in listening to his superiors. Stuhlbarg, the actor, infused Hoffstetler with an emotional beauty, yet he remains in the background. This is intentional, but the character felt like he could have done so much more.
Del Toro infuses his film with the themes and challenges of the time. There is an eerie, other-worldly environment about the film, no doubt due to the government paranoia at the time. Racism is prevalent in the film as well, but in the subtlest of ways. There’s a strong sense of magnanimity in Elisa’s character. In an era where everyone fended for themselves, Elisa gave of herself unconditionally.
There are some aspects of the film which were introduced and then left unexplored, favoring the love story. One probably won’t mind. Yet, had they been enhanced just a bit further, it would have strengthened some of the supporting characters’ situations.
Technically, the film is a marvel. There’s a sense of the grandiose and largesse, despite the struggles of each of our characters which Dan Laustsen’s cinematography conveys. Because of the limitations each character faces, sound is very much a factor in this film; each character is in their own world and yet, they find each other.
Love transcends adversity and Mr. del Toro wears his heart on his sleeve. The Shape of Water is worthy of the accolades it has already received, including the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and the AFI’s Top 10 list. Despite the few shortcomings, this is a gorgeous, timeless film and should be enjoyed on as big a screen as possible.
The Shape of Water is rated R by the MPAA.