The Shape of Water (2018 Academy Award for Best Picture) is written and directed by the Mexican wunderkind, Guillermo del Toro (of “Pan’s Labyrinth”). Part-fantasy, part-political commentary, and part-love story, “The Shape of Water” is difficult to categorize. The Shape of Water, an adult fairy tale of sorts, is both deeply familiar and suggests magical realism.
The opening scene, an aquatic beneath-the-sea dreamscape, leads us into a floating world of teal green water, gliding past chairs, lamps and tables, all swirling in the interior of the flooded apartment of Eliza, a mute janitor (the awesome Sally Hawkins), who lives a very spartan and lonely life.
Set during the Cold War, an alien aqueous creature worshipped as a god in the Amazon, has been captured for weapons research and is subsequently mistreated in a top-secret military research lab in a race against Russian scientists. The addition of a sensitive Russian biologist, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg of “Call Me By Your Name”,”The Post” and “Fargo”) , who recognizes the humanity of the amphibious anomaly, gives a surprising twist to the Cold War plot.
In The Shape of Water, the damage is more psychological than physical. Eliza’s face has been inexplicably burned some time in her past. Both she and the underwater sea creature, as well as her friends, are outcasts in a cruel, unforgiving world. “The others” — those with ethnic, racial and class differences, gays, the disabled, communists— are outsiders and misfits like Aqua Man. The way those “others” are woven together is a minor wonder and a parable for resisting authoritarianism and valuing diversity.
Because of her muteness, Elisa is looked at by others as something less than fully human, a type of alien herself. Her interest in the Aqua Man evolves into a deeply empathetic relationship, stirred less by curiosity than by recognition and identification with his plight. Think ET–an innocent befriending an alien.
Her neighbor Giles (in a wonderful performance by Richard Jenkins), a gay struggling aging artist , and Zelda (a sometimes hilarious Octavia Spencer), her co-worker on the cleaning crew, are her only social connections. Until she meets the Amazon amphibian.
Scientists in lab coats and military officers march officiously past their cleaning carts, rendering Elisa and her friend Zelda invisible at best and insulted more than occasionally. Richard Strickland (an always astonishing Michael Shannon), who is a government official in charge of the research project, carries an electric cattle prod, urinates in front of Eliza and Zelda, and genuinely enjoys sadism towards the Aqua Man. Now who is the monster, the dangerous alien?
Tension builds as one of the Russian research scientists is ordered to assassinate the amphibious creature before the Americans do. Here The Shape of Water pivots from a spy thriller with an ET vibe to a hodge-podge of 1940’s dance musicals (“La La Land” anyone?) and old film clips of musical numbers starring Shirley Temple, Betty Grable, Carmen Miranda and the Glenn Miller Orchestra among others. What happened to the main story? This not only didn’t hold this viewer’s attention but was a major disconnect.
Sadly, Shape of Water does not represent storytelling at its best. The drama is derivative of ET, and while water is ever changing in its shapelessness, only Elisa brings enough form and feeling to allow us to disavow the plot holes, offkilter sidetracking, and lack of backstory to understand some of the other major characters’ flaws.
Nonetheless, this is a career high for Sally Hawkins, who must communicate emotion with sheer physicality, since she plays a mute woman. And her performance is extraordinary.
Worth watching for Sally Hawkins and her colleagues Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, and Richard Jenkins. Not so much for the story!