The Shape of Water Review: Guillermo del Toro’s Aquatic Love Story Doesn’t Sink

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There’s hardly a moment throughout Guillermo del Toro’s best work since Pan’s Labyrinth that doesn’t move to its own melody. The Shape of Water is musical in its execution of love and mystery, delivering a violent fairy tale of fantastical passion. It’s effortlessly affectionate, refreshingly restrained, and, occasionally, frighteningly berserk. But this song of the sea strings it all together with a tone only a master like del Toro is capable of striking.

We follow the mute custodian Elisa (Sally Hawkins) as she cleans at a government facility alongside Zelda (Octavia Spencer) in early 1960s Baltimore. Her life is full of simple pleasures, sharing a meaningful friendship with her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) and imitating the tap dancers in old Hollywood films. But no one really hears her for who she is, as the only two people who seem to care about her are on their own missions of love. But then comes the arrival of the “asset” (Doug Jones), essentially the Creature from the Black Lagoon romantically brought to life with some of 2017’s most astounding visual effects (the film’s budget somehow comes in under $20 million—just what are those superhero films with terrible CGI wasting all their money on?). He’s a creature capable of understanding symbols, but one the scientists and government officials write off as an animal. So Elisa slowly strikes up an intimate friendship built upon kindness and understanding. Of course, as these things go, there are those who want to kill the creature for research.

As the film’s villain, Michael Shannon doesn’t necessarily tread new ground, but does exactly what he does best—creeping, intricate power plays, and a hint of the unhinged—to the extreme. And it’s seamlessly done in the same film as Spencer also playing to her typecast in a way that sews warmth into the film’s chilly, deep sea aesthetic long before love is in the, uh, water. These two actors of great screen presence played up to their wildly opposing strengths is integral in the director weaving his grim fairy tale tone with a bubbling-under-the-surface mid-century American personality (at one point, frustrated at work, Shannon’s character buys a brand new Cadillac on a whim, which ultimately fixes zero of his problems).

But The Shape of Water also benefits from a committed, stirring turn from Hawkins, who, in this case, is perfectly in line with del Toro’s unique tone, giving Elisa both darkness and innocence. Being mute, she’s naturally forced to find other ways to communicate with the audience, and she succeeds early and often, bursting with humanity and vulnerability without an audible word coming from her mouth. We understand immediately why society has closed her off to a life of loneliness, and then we yearn for her to find a connection to quell it.

Love, as the film tells it, is a more unruly beast than the creature Elisa is trying to save. Some characters found it and have since lost it, while others are ready to put the work in for it, but have no one to share it with. In Elisa’s case, love comes from the unknown, but she feels something, so she embraces it anyway. And that’s the lesson that comes at the end of this lovely gothic fable. The connection between Elisa and the creature boasts many of the some qualities of a classic romance. They communicate through silent looks. They push each other into uncomfortable territory. They become the best versions of themselves around each other. The Shape of Water struggles a bit to retain its sheer romantic momentum as the second act transitions into the third and the film grows more plot heavy before its resolution, but the end result is still a celebration of love that is as pure as it is bizarre. del Toro reminds us that if love were simple, it wouldn’t be worth fighting for. Along the way, by getting us to feel so much with so little, he’s also reminded us what magic looks like on the big screen. Grade: A-

By Matt Dougherty

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