The exotic aquatic, THE SHAPE OF WATER is a superlative cinema experience, an adult fairy tale that is breathtakingly beautiful, both heartbreakingly and heart warmingly hewn, a beauty and the beast story of wit, wisdom and wonder.
Set against the backdrop of Cold War era America circa 1962, the mute Elisa is a cleaner in a hidden high-security government laboratory in Baltimore. By day, she resides in an apartment atop the Orpheum cinema, where she looks in on neighbour, ex alcoholic commercial artist and movie musical aficionado, Giles, and his pet cats. Giles and her co-worker, Zelda, are the only two people who see Elisa as a complete person, not some mute retard.
One of Elisa’s great pleasures is the bath, the place she luxuriates in daily before heading off to her night shift job at the most secret government lab. The tub is where she indulges in full sensual pleasure, the water a caressing lover. She then works overnight with water, mop and bucket sluicing down laboratories and lavatories.
Into the lab comes a captured creature reminiscent of the Black Lagoon’s gill man. He is being prodded and probed by the scientists and brazenly tortured by the government security man who has delivered him from the rivers of South America.
Elisa is drawn to the mystery of this creature and through the offering of food and music and human contact that is not violent creates a rapport that evolves into a plan to emancipate him.
Director GuillermoDel Toro upends the conceit of monstrosity with a love story that surrenders fully to making the creature noble and heroic and the human forces aligned against him the true forces of sinister darkness.
Traditionally, Dick Strickland, the square-jawed, good-looking government agent, would be the hero, and the creature would be the villain, but THE SHAPE OF WATER shape shifts this conceit.
The look of the film is emotionally enveloping and sensually arresting, greens and teals abound, as do tiles, creating an aquatic ambience throughout.
Music is fundamental to Elisa’s communication with the creature and Alexandre Desplat‘s stupendous score provides another element for the film to soar.
THE SHAPE OF WATER is an unfathomable achievement by the entire collaborative circle, cinematographer Dan Laustsen, production designer Paul Austerberry and costume designer Luis Sequeira, co-writer Vanessa Taylor, the sound and visual effects crew and the astounding cast.
Arguably a career best, Sally Hawkins‘ Elisa emotes and evokes so much without words, a clear eyed intelligence with a wide eyed innocence, everything good about humans, kindness, compassion, the capability and capacity of love.
Taking a role that exists on the border between human, animal and myth is Doug Jones, who utilises both a meticulously-designed prosthetic costume and an extraordinary knack for physical expressiveness to forge the creature. Jones was the unforgettable Pale Man in PAN’S LABYRINTH, and Abe Sapien in the HELLBOY series, and here he invests the trademark beauty in the beast.
The true beast is G man, Richard Strickland played with strict, ruthless and malevolent menace by Michael Shannon. His bible bashing, odious loathing of “the other” is loathsome, a prime example of male chauvinism and scoundrel patriotism
Michael Stuhlbarg brings his quality acumen to characterisation as Dimitri, a Russian spy infiltrated into the lab who finds himself not only disapproving of the handling of the creature but also of his own political masters. Like Elisa, he is super observant and exudes a strong personal integrity.
Richard Jenkins is terrific as the follicle challenged, feline keeping, musical film fan who finds his inner lion to aid Elisa in her quest for the aquaman’s liberation. Strong support too from Octavia Spencer as Elisa’s workmate, Zelda.
THE SHAPE OF WATER is, like its amphibious leading man, a rare breed of a film – romantic, suspenseful, funny, and ultimately fantastic. It magnificently fulfils its ambitions and audacity, a feast for the eyes, mind, heart and soul.