A mute janitor, responsible for cleaning a government lab during the Cold War, develops a bond with the peculiar creature being housed there.
Guillermo Del Toro’s latest addition to the fantasy genre is reminiscent of Pan’s Labyrinth, but in all the right ways. Both “Pan” and “Water” rely heavily on tales from old folklore, myth and legend; and both are magical realism in settings of wartime. While “Pan” tells us a story about the fae, “Water” focuses on mermaids. Del Toro has built a career around his darker fantastical visions; his style is unique in that the magic in the worlds he creates is always secondary to the characters living in that world. He makes us care about the characters; we cry for them when they hurt and laugh with them when they feel happy. As we enter into the fringe of awards season, Shape of Water leads the Golden Globe race with seven nominations for Best Drama, Director, Screenplay, Score and three acting nominations for Hawkins, Jenkins, and Spencer.
Sally Hawkins (“Happy-go-Lucky”) plays the mute janitor, Eliza. Within the first few minutes of the movie, her character’s whimsy sets the tone. She goes about her daily routine in a dancelike fashion, flitting from here to there without a care in the world. It’s hard not to take a liking to Eliza immediately. She converses amiably with her neighbor, Giles, a closeted homosexual, played by Richard Jenkins (“The Cabin in the Woods”). She goes to her job where we are introduced to her effervescent friend and fellow janitor, Zelda (Octavia Spencer, “The Help”). They spend their time mopping the shadowy halls of the facility, Zelda chatting amiably away, until something is brought into a chamber; a large cylinder reminiscent of an isolation chamber, inside is one whom the credits have dubbed Amphibian Man (Doug Jones,“Hellboy”).
In the minutes after learning about the existence of this creature we are giving the foundations of the plot. Michael Shannon’s (“Fahrenheit 451”) tenacious, unflinching character, Richard Strickland, reveals that he’s dragged Amphibian Man out of the dark depths of the Amazon all the way to this tiny seaside town to find out what makes the creature tick, hoping that in studying the creature they might make a breakthrough in breathing without air- something he believes could be very useful in the Space Race against the Russians. Strickland is everything Eliza isn’t; where Eliza is a mute, Strickland is always barking commands; where Eliza is bubbly and mischievous, Strickland is always down to business, no nonsense. The two characters dance around each other creating perfect balance in celluloid. Michael Stuhlbarg (“Call Me By Your Name”) plays Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, a scientist first and foremost, but he’s also doubling as a spy for the Russians. With the characters set on the murky stage, the story begins.
Perhaps the best part of this movie is the believability of the actions taken by the characters and the changes they endure as a result. Every character, no matter how small, is dynamic; they all learn something, and different things drive them each of them towards their goals. Even Strickland, the villain of the film, has specific reasons for what he does, and though he isn’t a sympathetic character, he is one who’s actions are easy to understand when looking at it from his perspective. Giles, Zelda, and Hoffstetler, too, all have their own moral dilemmas they go up against, and each one handles it in a way that makes perfect sense for their characters.
The actors here are all veterans of their craft. Of the top billed cast only Doug Jones and Michael Stuhlbarg have yet to be nominated for an Oscar; the talent soaks through the screen without filter. Hawkins and Shannon steal the show for the majority of the movie, but Doug Jones manages to evoke a surprising amount of emotion and convey his curiosity even under all the makeup. Hawkins’s presence is something to behold, as she has next to no actual dialogue, she still manages to captivate the audience through her mannerisms and personality quirks. Her character’s happy-go-lucky nature shifts seamlessly into open defiance against Strickland, a change we are all too excited to witness. Shannon is phenomenal as always. While not nearly as subtle as he was in “Nocturnal Animals” or “Take Shelter”, he gives a chilling performance as a man driven to complete his work, even if it drives him to the brink of insanity.
Another fantastic element, one that rarely lacks in any of Del Toro’s films, is the production design. The film has a teal hue that permeates throughout, water spills, drips and pours over nearly every frame, much of the lighting is done from above and has shimmering elements to it- as if the whole movie were lit underwater. Many of patterns on the walls in the government facility look like ripples or waves. Water being in the title, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that water is featured prominently throughout the film, but Del Toro has found a way to make water flow through this film even when there’s none on screen. The design of Amphibian Man is flawless, and while it’s clearly paying homage to the “Creature from the Black Lagoon”, the design is far improved from the 1954 classic Universal Monster flick. Much like the Faun in Pan’s Labyrinth, the character relies on heavy prosthetic makeup instead of CGI, something that works to the advantage of the aesthetic- the creature feels far more tactile this way.
This is not necessarily a weakness, per say, but it is something that may turn off a number of viewers. The theme of this film revolves around love and the unconditional nature of truly unselfish love. There are brief, fragile glimpses of this type of love through the film; between Giles and the Diner owner, Zelda and the husband she complains about constantly but loves regardless. As the story progresses, a romantic interspecies relationship develops. While the story is meant to convey the idea that all love is valid, some viewers may find the relationship between Elisa and Amphibian Man a bit too strange for them. Indeed, during one of the more physical scenes of the movie I heard exclaimed from the darkened theatre a quiet uttering of the word “gross,” to which there arose a warbling of giggles. I have a hard time believing that those who can’t get past this will fully appreciate the movie; some suspension of disbelief is required for the full impact.
It is a fantasy film, after all.
It’s rare that a fantasy film is made this well, and rarer still that the characters are so relatable and the themes are so relevant today. Del Toro has proven time and again that he knows how to create magical worlds with real emotional impact, and though this film doesn’t quite live up to “Pan’s Labyrinth” (a movie I consider to be very close to perfect), it does create a world that is unforgettable, beautiful, and, most importantly, magical. The ancient theme of love conquers all, while well-worn, still has a place in today’s world, and this film does a wonderful job of addressing the fragility and nature of misunderstood love. Fans of fantasy would be hard pressed to find a better genre film this year.
Review Written By: