Few directors could pull off a love story between a mute janitor and an alien creature. Even fewer could turn that premise into one of this year’s most captivating films, “The Shape of Water.” With his latest flick, director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro has created a compelling story with breathtaking cinematography and intriguing characters. The result is a sensational cinematic love story that should not be missed.
“The Shape of Water” transports viewers to the early 1960s, with the United States in the midst of the Cold War. Mute protagonist Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) and her chatty friend Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) mop the floors of the Occam Aerospace Research Center, a high-security government facility in Baltimore. When their sadistic boss Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) discovers an amphibious alien creature (Doug Jones) in South America and brings him back to the lab, Elisa finds herself drawn to this amphibian man. With help from Zelda, her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) and lab worker Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), Elisa tries to save the scaled creature before he is slaughtered by Strickland for scientific study.
While the story, co-written by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, is partially a Cold War thriller, the film’s main focus is its romance, and del Toro crafts a beautiful one. The R-rated film shows intimate moments between Elisa and the creature, but it never feels strange because of the genuine connection the two share. Both characters are misunderstood and isolated from society — Elisa because of her disability and the creature because of his alien nature — and yet they accept each other for who they are. Although neither can speak, their ineffable connection is apparent and one that the audience can understand.
The film begins with an alluring scene that shows Elisa’s apartment completely submerged in water and continues to dazzle with its visuals. Del Toro’s sets emphasize the bright colors of the ’60s, from neon Cadillac dealerships and colorful diners to cherry red-cushioned movie theatres. He also uses practical effects along with CGI to make the creature himself look real, allowing for more empathy toward the creature on the viewer’s part. When he touches Elisa you get the sense that he is more than a CGI creation, and that makes their scenes together all the more powerful.
Much of the film falls on the shoulders of Hawkins, and she delivers an Oscar-worthy performance. As Elisa is unable to speak, the viewer learns about her character mostly through her actions, expressions and use of sign language. Although we aren’t given much about Elisa’s background, Hawkins brings a subtlety to the role that hints at her character’s difficult past. While a brief flashback to Elisa’s past may have helped add depth to her character, she is fascinating even without the explanation. Her pain and desire to make a connection with anyone or anything is palpable, and it is apparent how much the creature means to her.
A movie is only as good as its villain, and Shannon is absolutely despicable as Strickland, a misogynistic colonel at the research facility who antagonizes Elisa and tortures the creature. We don’t learn much about what makes him so cruel, but Shannon’s performance is convincing enough. The viewer fears him and what he is willing to do for his job. The last act of the film, when Strickland becomes desperate to find and murder the creature, features Shannon at his best and scariest.
Throughout the film, del Toro pays homage to classic films. Elisa’s apartment is located above a movie theater, and Elisa and Giles watch and dance to musicals together. Later in the film, del Toro includes a black-and-white musical number in which he gives voice to Elisa to express her love to the tune of Harry Warren and Mack Gordon’s “You’ll Never Know (Just How Much I Love You).” Even the creature escapes to the cinema at one point to take in a classical Hollywood film.
The premise of “The Shape of Water” borrows aspects from classic Hollywood flicks, but del Toro executes it with such precision that the film never feels cliche. Every shot is beautifully crafted. Del Toro’s efforts paid off — “The Shape of Water” is an absolutely magical moviegoing experience.