To say that Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is weird take on Beauty and the Beast is a gross understatement. Thankfully, that is not a negative in the slightest. While this is only the second film of his I have seen (the other being 2006’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth), I am confident in saying that del Toro’s is an acquired taste, and I am one to gorge on it.
Set in the 1960s, The Shape of Water tells the story of Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute single woman whose life consists of janitorial duties at a research facility. True, a mute person may be looked at differently, but Elisa has such a charm about her it is impossible to not like her. Her two main friends are her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer).
One day, the research facility gets an aquatic creature from the amazon, brought by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). While the main scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg) wants to keep it alive (he has his own secrets to hide), Strickland wants it cut up and studied (he and the creatures did not get along “on the way back”). The only source of love comes from Elisa.
I pause now to not give away anything else, except to say that there was a feeling of resolution I felt as the story (written by Del Toro, with help from Vanessa Taylor) unfolded. It all made sense and made me feel content. Of course, it also does not hurt when you have some of the most stunning images of the past decade. They all speak for themselves.
You won’t be surprised that Del Toro wrote the characters with (most of) these actors in mind. Michael Shannon has always been great at playing a character that makes you feel a little queasy, but he kicks it up many notches here. There is one scene where he radiates all we have been coming to despise about sexual assault recently. His character is clearly the villain of the year. Of course, Octavia Spencer is pitch perfect (she has already won an Oscar for being a part of The Help). There is no way Zelda could have been played by anyone other than Spencer.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was Richard Jenkins (who the role was not originally written for) as the neighbor. When you think of his role, you realize it could have easily been too over the top and been the problem for the film. Yet Jenkins brings more than humor, but also subtly and depth. He is remarkable.
Still, it is Sally Hawkins who is the most human, palpable, and poetic. I have been a fan of her since 2008’s Happy-Go-Lucky (which I still am mad she did not get nominated for at the Oscars), and here she truly has more of a chance to show she is one of the most underrated actresses we have. I know it is ironic to say, but her performance truly speaks volumes.
Parents, the film is not at all for kids. There is a good amount of swearing and violence, but also a handful of nudity scenes. While I am aware of nudity being a form of art (as it is shown here), there is one sex scene that I am not sure needed to be included (though it did show a characteristic of one of the characters). Either way, the R rating is totally accurate.
Still, the movie is a gem, and one of the year’s very best. It is already getting the Oscar buzz it surely deserves, and will be high way robbery if it is not nominated for Best Picture (let alone director, lead actress, screenplay….ok, you get the idea).
I left the theater, feeling the way all great movies should make you feel: Refreshed.
Overall: Four and a Half Stars **** 1/2