The Shape of Water (2017)
Guillermo del Toro’s last few efforts have been less intriguing than anticipated. Crimson Peak, Hellboy 2, and Pacific Rim lacked the appeal Pan’s Labyrinth promised in his career. That’s my taste and likely not held by all, but my disappointment has been qualmed by the stunningly gorgeous, brilliantly acted work of bizarre art The Shape of Water. During the Cold War, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute custodian at a government facility, finds herself entangled in a merman’s kidnapping at the hands of a cruel agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Enamored with the “monster,” the pair develop a bond through their interactions between the merman’s tazings. Paired with her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), her work friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and a scientist studying the creature (Michael Stuhlbarg), they attempt to save Amphibian Man (Doug Jones in all his fishy brilliance) from his capture.
The film is an absolute beauty, even if the violence and Ichtyophilia are not your things. The film is immaculately designed. From light shining under floorboards of Elisa’s and Giles’ rundown apartments to the metallic and green research laboratory to Amphibian Man’s changing personage, del Toro spared no detail in creating his feature. The pacing is at parts adventure, at parts romance, but it is never stulled. The villain is hateable, a pile of ableist, racist, and anti-fish rhetoric, painful in its continued relevance. The heroes are a ragtag bunch, and as eager as they are to help, their flaws and struggles endear more than their courage. Bitingly humorous or shockingly bloody, this film numbers with Pan’s Labyrinth as one of del Toro’s best, certainly his best of this decade.
Spencer, Jenkins, Shannon and Stuhlbarg (I’d totally be into this folk quartet) are great supporting players. Each role contains enough pizzaz to stand out without distracting from our central couple. Spencer falls into her most critically successful role as the friend with a quick tongue and sharp wit. Already having won an Oscar and been nominated for a second for similar roles, it would be no surprise if she got herself into the tight supporting actress field. Jenkins has a gentle touch to his role as a closeted gay man, and his joviality feeds a light side in Elisa where she is usually on a more timid side. Stuhlbarg is tense in his role adding some excitement where there usually would be little; he catches so much stress in his eyes. Michael Shannon, as usual, is a standout as a villain. He is uncompromisingly cruel. Detached from his family and ambivalent to inflicting pain, his sociopathy is as terrifying in its spontaneity and intensity.
In another brilliant performance as a woman with disabilities, Golden Globe-winner Sally Hawkins is easily the actress of 2017. Paired with the arthritic Maud Lewis in Maudie, Hawkins demonstrates restraint in her interpretations of those with special needs while elevating the humanity behind the disabilities. Hawkins as Elisa lives inside her head; she is dreamy and lives a buoyant life following the noise of others. Her fantasy life is thriving, and her adventurous spirit guides Elisa as one of the heroes of the year. The way Hawkins emotes without saying a word tops the silent performances of The Artist as well as all of her very loquacious screen partners. The tender partnership built between Lady and the Damp is sensual even before the risque bits. Teaching Amphibian Man language, they connect on a deep level. When Elisa first hands the monster an egg with ample trepidation, but the confident manner in which she reassures the food’s safety while facing the claws and teeth proves that her role has inviting layers.
These two are peas in a pod. Early in the story, Zelda notes that Elisa is an educated woman, the extent to which is not made know, but due to her inability to speak, she has been relegated to menial work, even with a clearly thriving mind behind the silence. She is able to connect with Amphibian Man, a creature of seemingly ceaseless amazements who is being treated like a circus bear, in ways her “normal” co-humans lack. Language is learned, but communication has innate qualities that the film portrays gracefully from sign language to guttural noises to dance. Speaking is overrated when you really think of it. Next to Trump having access to a Twitter app, it’s often the most damaging, clumsy connection that portrays the worst in people. This mute duo can see past those limitations.