Guillermo del Toro’s creature feature “The Shape of Water,” a grotesquely gorgeous fairy tale, just might be the most epically romantic monster movie ever. Del Toro makes films that straddle the line between horror and beauty, fascinated by attraction to the unexpected and the weird. The film, co-written with Vanessa Taylor, is a delightfully subversive and heartrending love story; deeply original, boundary-pushing and genuinely emotional and moving.
Set in the early ’60s, Sally Hawkins stars as Elisa, a mute woman who lives in a dank apartment above a glorious old movie palace in Baltimore. She leads a nocturnal life, caring for her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted, struggling illustrator, before her graveyard shift cleaning a government facility, working with the brash and funny Zelda (Octavia Spencer), her translator and protector.
One night, the women witness a new “asset” being wheeled into the building in a rusty iron water tank, guarded by a menacing security director, Strickland (Michael Shannon). Intrigued by the flapping of fins, Elisa lingers in the lab whenever she can to catch a glimpse of the mysterious amphibian. In the murky waters, she discovers that this greenish-gold fish-man, powerfully strong — able to rip off a man’s fingers with a single swoop of a webbed hand — is as gentle as a lamb when she woos him with hard-boiled eggs and big band records.
She forges a close bond with the strangely beautiful creature, which is masterfully communicated by del Toro, using visual storytelling for this couple that doesn’t speak. However, Hawkins’ performance is the lynchpin — she’s mesmerizing in wordlessly expressing every corner and facet of her character’s emotional journey, like a starlet from the silent era.
It’s not easy for these two to be in love, especially when the violent, cattle prod-wielding Strickland has dark intentions. Locked in a Cold War-era Space Race, the U.S. government is convinced the creature could be their “space dog,” thanks to his unique breathing system, and are racing against the clock against the Russians.
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“The Shape of Water” is a movie that’s in love with the movies, but it happily upends genre too, drawing out the subtextual love themes found in many monster movies, spinning a Cinderella-story romance. The creature from the black lagoon becomes the leading man, while the strapping military officer is the force of destruction and evil.
The world that del Toro crafts in “The Shape of Water” is dreamy, dark and damp, and Alexander Desplat’s swooning score adds to the lyrical fantasy. The film takes place entirely at night, offering a quiet unreality, everything cast in an eerie blueish green hue, from the uniforms and cars, to the bright green jello that quivers in a rather “sordid” key lime pie.
“The Shape of Water” hits that sweet spot of lovely, dark, poignant and bloody. Though it is pure of heart, it’s a profoundly adult film, with sex, violence and serious themes about identity and politics. The extended climax feels prolonged, but del Toro uses that time to establish the characters and motivation so that the bloodshed is earned.
The heroes are outsiders — long discriminated against and ostracized by white patriarchy — who band together to save this vulnerable, curious creature, far from home. In the face of terror, they champion love against hate, acceptance against destruction. What a simple, yet powerfully resonant message.
starring Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon and Michael Stuhlbarg. Directed by Guillermo del Toro Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes.