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As the closing credits came up in the darkened theater, a patron to my right said “that wasn’t very realistic.”
While I cannot disagree with this opinion, I am not sure realism was precisely what writer/director Guillermo del Toro was going for in his brilliant, lovely and lyrical The Shape of Water.
Part fable and part fairy tale, The Shape of Water tells the story of an unlikely romance between night maid Elisa Esposito (played by Sally Hawkins in an Oscar nominated performance) and the Amphibian Man (played by Doug Jones in a performance that should have been likewise recognized). When agents of the US government bring a strange, aquatic creature to the lab where Elisa works, the immediate fascination she feels with the being – and his with her – quickly passes from intrigue to friendship to more.
Hawkins’ Elisa is mute and the actress is utterly astounding and captivating. She gains the audience’s attention and compassion from the earliest scenes of the movie and she does not let go. In ways both subtle and overt, Hawkins’ manner grounds the more fantastic elements of the movie; she is the center of the movie and her acceptance of and belief in all that is happening to her and because of her makes The Shape of Water work. Hers is a performance that deserves recognition and it immediately indelible. There is no Shape of Water without Hawkins.
Both Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins rightfully received Support Actor nominations for the movie. They serve as the voices of the film with Hawkins’ Elisa a mute and the Amphibian Man not speaking in a language recognizable to human ears. There is something telling and intentional about the dialogue of the movie being carried, primarily, by a black woman and a closeted gay man. There is something important about that. Jenkins and Spencer are excellent and they are funny. Elisa’s romance is the heart and they are the soul of The Shape of Water.
Antagonist Michael Shannon is at his best here, too and, while his role is fairly black and… black in terms of nuance, Shannon is so good he manages to find and play a few subtle shades of gray. On hand as well is the typically solid and ubiquitous Michael Stuhlbarg – the man who seems to be in every film made in the last five years.
The Shape of Water is a movie about those society rejects, those who exist on the outside and at the margins. It is about how they find purpose and love and faith. It is an undeniably timely film wrapped in a fairy tale-like timeless package.
Typically, movies that layer on symbolism and signs fatigue me. I can become quickly disenchanted by them. That is not the case here. While there is much allegory (the Cold War setting, the movie theater location, the severed fingers, the Power of Positive Thinking tropes, the color and set design… and more!) to ponder, I found – and still find – myself doing just that: pondering the significance of del Toro’s choices and finding more to ponder when I do.
And still, one of the most remarkable things about The Shape of Water is how few surprises there are. The movie plays out as one would expect and hits notes that are familiar and comfortable. There are no mind-bending plot twists and even the end of the movie is so well telegraphed by the beginning that it, too, cannot be considered surprising. So why is The Shape of Water so well regarded? Why is it so good?
It is a gorgeous movie, layered in shades of green (the application of that color means so much to the film). The design is astounding and there are more than a few scenes where I leaned over to The Cinnamon Girl and said “this is really beautiful.” One that remains in my mind is a shot of the Amphibian Man standing, mouth agape, in the center of a movie theater watching a film unspool before him. Breathtaking.
The Shape of Water is the most nominated film of this Academy Award season and it is clear why that is. I would not be surprised – nor disappointed – if it take home most of the trophies. It is that good.
THE SHAPE OF WATER receives FIVE GREEN CANDIES out of a possible FIVE.