Imagine the timeless love story Beauty and the Beast set in 1960s Cold War America, and the beast is an amphibian-man desired by the U.S. and Russia for weapon-utilizing purposes.
Here you have director Guillermo Del Toro’s latest film; the lovely, The Shape of Water, or the basic outline, at least. The special ingredient in this affectingly heart-filled film is its achingly dutiful ode to classic romantic movies of the past. The Shape of Water feels like the ever-magisterial Del Toro was swept up in the same intoxicating aroma that spellbound director Damien Chazelle with his Hollywood backlot-homage, La La Land. Del Toro, of Mexican heritage, is also fully channeling not just the American Studio romance movie but waves of French cinema as well, fully-embracing the cinema of old to tell this story of new. This holiday season, let the feel-good, achingly beautiful The Shape of Water color your heart anew – even if that color is a sea-foam green much like our fin-filled friend.
Audiences should know (and not mind) that in the classical tradition, this period piece does away with an intricate storyline for a more classic, familiar one. And why should it be anything but a simple tale of two star-crossed lovers? Anything more would weigh down this otherwise beautifully buoyant film, whose best quality is its lightness which keeps the fireplace warm. This tone and spirit stem directly from the performance of Sally Hawkins who plays Elisa, a mute (not deaf) janitor who works at an underground facility in 1960s Baltimore. Meek in demeanor as she works alongside her co-worker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), she’s clearly gotten comfortable with her unnoticed lifestyle. She silently and deftly soft-shoes through the halls to the film’s beautifully cinematic score (Del Toro has said that The Shape of Water was first designed to Jon Brion’s score for Punch-Drunk Love, his favorite Paul Thomas Anderson film, if that clues you in on what Del Toro is trying to do here.)
The film is about two creatures who won’t let anything or anybody stand in their way. And in this day and age, that’s something that should be applauded.
Living her routine lifestyle, which includes waking up in her one-bedroom apartment, enjoying herself in the tub, and clocking in for work, suddenly become upended when Elisa actually meets “the asset” – the Amphibian Man resembling the creature from the Black Lagoon. A timid courting begins between both silent creatures. She teaches him to sign simple phrases to communicate while the Amphibian is chained in his iron-cast tank while also enjoying late-night lunches of hard-boiled eggs and jazz records.
But as we all know, the kindred-spirits-finding-companionship story needs its villain, which Michael Shannon deliciously delivers as Strickland, a hell-bent overseer of the facility and self-appointed torturer of the asset. The film plays to its expected path – Elisa sets in motion a plan to break the creature free with help from her also sheepish illustrator neighbor (played by a wonderful Richard Jenkins – seriously, this whole cast rocks!). Conventional and comforting, but also adventurous and erotic (sensual scenes between Elisa and the Amphibian man are not shied away from), The Shape of Water is everything we wish the film would be.
Del Toro has shown with his previous work that he can create some of the best fantasy-creature movies ever made, like the aforementioned modern-day masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth which showed his dark extraction of children’s fantasy, as well as comic book shoot-em-ups like Hellboy. But where those films were considerably more action-filled, The Shape of Water is decidedly affection-filled and sure to imprint a soft smile on doting audience’s faces. Do yourself a favor this holiday season, and let yourself get swept away in the lyrical and loving The Shape of Water with a loved one in theaters. For a film about two creatures who won’t let anything – politics, danger, or the fact that they’re two different species – stand in their way, in these otherwise cynical times that’s something that audiences should let themselves snuggle up to.
119 min. ‘The Shape of Water’ is rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence, and language. Opening this Friday at the Landmark and ArcLight Hollywood.