An other-worldly fairy tale, set against the backdrop of Cold War era America circa 1962. In the hidden high-security government laboratory where she works, lonely Elisa is trapped in a life of isolation. Elisa’s life is changed forever when she and co-worker Zelda discover a secret classified experiment.
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writers: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Stars: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon
Closed Captioning and Descriptive Narration Available
Guillermo del Toro still believes in the magic of movies. He understands, perhaps better than anyone, that we are willing to sign over the expectation of realism if we are enraptured by the emotion of cinema. He has always produced films that work on multiple levels, but his latest, the masterful “The Shape of Water,” which also just won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, is one of his deepest, most complex, most rewarding, and flat-out beautiful films. It is enchanting and moving, the kind of movie you want to see again the minute it’s over.
Del Toro’s film opens underwater, a camera floating through a light blue world of furniture and photographs that eventually settles to the floor, as we arrive on the waking face of Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins). Immediately, del Toro is setting tone—bringing us to the film through a dream-like state in a way that makes it clear this is a fairy tale that won’t necessarily play by the rules of everyday realism. Adding to this sense of magic is the fact that Eliza lives above an old-fashioned movie house, and spends her days watching classic films with her kindly artist neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins). She spends her nights working the cleaning crew at a top-secret facility with her friend and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Late one night, the operation brings in an “Asset” that looks like a modern variation on The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Played by Doug Jones, the Asset is a fascinating cinematic creation, unable to speak, but clearly able to feel and eventually communicate. Eliza, who happens to be mute, forms a relationship with this fellow outcast, while the evil Strickland (Michael Shannon) refuses to see it as anything more than a creature to be analyzed and abused.
On one level, “The Shape of Water” is a lovely romance, an ode to a pair of beings cast aside by an indifferent world, and it has a heartfelt undercurrent that works from first frame to last. However, this is no mere whimsy experiment. Del Toro is working in a deeper register than you may first expect, imbuing the story with political subtext and honest stakes. This is a grown-up film with violence, sex, and danger. It is a movie with something important to say about how the dreamers, artists, scientists, and cleaners of the world will be its revolutionaries, and the people more likely to do what’s right than those in charge.
And then there are del Toro’s gifts with composition and performance. By now, we shouldn’t surprised that “The Shape of Water” looks amazing. There’s not a detail unconsidered or design element unrefined. The ensemble is uniformly incredible as well, especially Hawkins, who gives one of the best silent performances in film history. Her work helps tie this movie to a lineage of classic filmmaking we don’t often see anymore, in which composition and physicality mattered more than the almighty dialogue. Given my love for its filmmaker, I may be too close to this project to see its flaws, but I don’t think I’ll be alone in considering it a masterpiece.
– Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com