The Shape of Water; 120 min; Rated R
I saw the trailer to “The Shape of Water” more than once and was intrigued by the premise. I loved the title.
The year is 1962. The city is Baltimore. The setting, in great part, a sterile, damp, underground government lab where something arrives, called an “asset,” and is kept in a water tank/aquarium. One of the night crew cleaning ladies, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a plain, mute woman, who, because of her lack of speech is, while friendly, also timid and deeply lonely; yet, atypically, finds she is compelled to explore what is in the tank.
To her surprise, what she discovers is an amphibious humanoid creature (Doug Jones), covered in luminous scales, looking back at her with large liquid eyes. Captured in a river in the Amazon, it is brought back by government agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), a sadistic racist who takes pleasure in torturing the creature with an electric cattle prod and insists it is nothing more than an “abomination.” Strickland’s plan, actually an emphatic recommendation, is to kill the thing and dissect it in order to find anything that could be useful to the military and a bevy of scientists in their efforts to win the Cold War. And so ends act one.
But director/writer Guillermo del Toro then takes the narrative in another direction and turns it into an adult fairy tale/love story wherein Elisa develops a connection with the amphibian creature that is completely unexpected. She brings it hardboiled eggs, plays music on a portable phonograph, and teaches it rudimentary sign language. Thus begins a tale reminiscent of “Beauty and the Beast,” replete with scenes, balletic in their coupling, that convey a fearlessness, especially on the part of Elisa, as she expresses her desire (even lust) to consummate her feelings.
Having learned about Strickland’s plan, she makes a courageous, life-altering choice. She refuses to yield, devises a plan, having felt the antithesis of loneliness and isolation whenever she is with the creature.
And so del Toro draws the audience deeper into his allegorical story. And it is at this point that he asks the viewer to suspend his or her disbelief and accept what can seem a deeply improbable premise: a love story that is so surreal that it pushes to the edge of that proverbial envelope. The question embedded in the relationship, which is beautifully rendered, is does he ask too much? For some, it will be a bridge too far, so to speak, the fantasy stretching all credibility. For others, they will be swept away by the resonating contact between this silent woman and her need and an isolated creature conceived in the rich imagination of del Toro (the amphibian humanoid does bring to mind the 1954 film, “The Creature From the Black Lagoon”).
I found that I couldn’t accept the core premise of the film and was not moved by Elisa’s reaching out to this strange man-fish. I know that del Toro was asking the audience to suspend its disbelief and accept the fairy tale.
What I did take great pleasure in, however, was watching the stunning performance of Hawkins, a consummate actress who starred in another deeply human film, “Maudie,” one in which she also faces overwhelming loneliness. She is amazing. But then so is the ensemble cast in “The Shape of Water.” Veteran charachter actor Richard Jenkins and Shannon are both superb.
For me, however, it came down to the story, one that bears the signature of del Toro ("Pan’s Labyrinth"). His films are high risk, high gain for moviegoers. Yet I wouldn’t be surprised if “The Shape of Water” wins an Oscar for Best Picture (it has seven Golden Globe nominations) and Hawkins is nominated for Best Actress.
I confess that it’s a bit disconcerting when a film is so fully embraced by critics and audiences and I find myself asking what I fail to see that for so many is both evocative and irresistible. But there it is.