Tuesday, December 19, 2017


The 300-year-old fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast has been the inspiration for countless cinematic versions; from KING KONG to Disney productions, the story of two lovers who are separated by physical limitations and other forces working against them is irresistible and ripe for excellent drama. For visionary writer/director Guillermo del Toro, the challenge was telling the story in a way that feels new, and the solution was simple: it’s all about the setting.

During the 1960’s Cold War, Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mute cleaning-lady at a secret government facility. When an aquatic, half-man, half-fish creature is captured and brought to the facility by the ruthless Strickland (Michael Shannon), Elisa strikes a connection with the beast, and sets out on a mission to free it (him), with the help of her neighbor (Richard Jenkins), her cleaning lady friend (Octavia Spencer), and a scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg).

THE SHAPE OF WATER is certainly familiar territory, with two potential lovers from different worlds being held apart by every possible force in the universe. To change things up, Del Toro uses his old trick of picking a specific time and place for his version. The Cold War paranoia of the 1960’s is chosen and put to good use, with elements of the civil rights movement, the space race, and the possibility of Russian spies lurking about weaving around the film.

Del Toro winds up with a lot of plotlines to work with in what seems like should be a simple story of establishing the connection with the beast, breaking him out, and setting him free. The various narratives of bigotry and patriotism drive all the characters; most of these work, some feel like padding, but everything mostly blends together by movie’s end. It’s thick with story, and it works well.

The center of it all is the connection between Elisa and the merman. With Elisa speaking only in sign-language and the merman (never given a name) communicating only in grunts, we get a fascinating look at how two different beings can learn to communicate. A lot of the connection-building between the two seems to happen off-camera, and the falling-in-love happens quickly, but once the characters are there it still works. There’s genuine emotion between the two, and this voiceless pair somehow becomes a perfect couple.  

Del Toro keeps the film nice and tight despite all that he has going on; the pacing is brisk and the humor is well-timed. The set design of 1960’s America is stunning and welcome to see; from the living rooms to car dealerships, it is a comfort to take in. Del Toro’s love for old cinema and musicals is ever present, and the score by Alexandre Desplat is excellent. There are also some ventures into kinky territory which may come as a surprise to many.

Sally Hawkins, in the lead role, is a pure charmer, and always comes across as someone we’d like to hang out with. Richard Jenkins gets some great moments, as does Octavia Spencer and Michael Stuhlbarg. Michael Shannon serves as the villain of the story, who is committed to his job and family, but down deep has darker things going on, and Shannon rules the role with terrifying effect. Doug Jones, who has collaborated with Del Toro before in his past creature-features, is outstanding in the role of the merman. The suit is brilliantly designed (and looks amazing) and allows for a full physical performance that would have worked well in the silent era.

With all the plotlines and themes that THE SHAPE OF WATER has going on, the film still has a very straightforward, A to Z feel to it. Anyone looking for a big twist or misdirection may be disappointed, but on its own merits the film functions very well. The story may be as old as time, but it feels as original and fresh as spring water.


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