Interspecies Love Blossoms Among Russian Spies and Secret Laboratories
Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro’s newest film The Shape of Water has received tremendous acclaim from critics since its release in early December. Co-star Michael Shannon made the late-night rounds around that time to promote the film. His selling point was essentially the same for each of his appearances – he gave a synopsis followed by the audience’s shocked silence – ‘I’s a love story between a mute woman and an amphibious godlike creature set against the backdrop of the 1960s Cold War in Baltimore, Maryland.’ Gasp! Call me cynical – maybe I’ve seen too many oddball films to be surprised – but this doesn’t seem all that groundbreaking. It is essentially a star-crossed lovers story in the vein of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet; if Romeo was a humanoid river monster and Juliet were mute. Juliet just needs to fall in love with ‘the Beast’ – remind you of other films? While The Shape of Water was not as groundbreaking in premise as some critic will note, that shouldn’t take away from a solid outing by del Toro.
Del Toro is a master behind the camera – a true artist. His manipulation of scene layout and set design are among the best in the business today. If you’ve seen any of his recent films (especially Crimson Peak), you should be familiar with del Toro’s use of mise en scene and atmospheric creation through set design. Every shot in The Shape of Water is used expertly to craft the story he wrote, produced, and directed. The film open’s in his protagonist Elisa Esposito’s apartment; upstairs from a single-screen movie theater. From the look of it, she lives behind the front signage of the theater; the ceiling of her apartment oddly curved to mirror the theater awning out front. This atypical room layout is the first of many locales that del Toro highlights – telling his story through the look of the film as much as through the words and actors on screen. We follow late night custodian Elisa to her underground military laboratory workplace – complete with thick steel walls and giant circular vault doors before setting off on a noir mystery at abandoned coal plants and retro ice cream parlors.
Inhabiting these iconic scene locales are Sally Hawkins as the meek Elisa, Michael Shannon as the raging, hysterical Colonel Richard Strickland, and longtime character actor Richard Jenkins as Elisa’s next door neighbor and confidant Giles. Hawkins, Shannon, and Jenkins are all equally strong with their performances. Hawkins’ only form of communication throughout the film, as a mute, is sign language and facial expression; yet she displays a range far beyond her character’s limitations. Jenkins plays the comic relief, as a massively insecure failed artist still trying to find his place as a member of the LGBTQ community in 1960s America- all while delivering crushing self deprecation.
Michael Shannon is unhinged as a short-tempered military man who wants to be done with his responsibilities of babysitting the Amphibian Man he captured in the jungles of South America. Shannon gets crazier and crazier as the film progresses – culminating in him literally ripping decaying fingers off his hand in a violent rage – all before learning first-hand the true powers of his frog-man prisoner. Del Toro does an excellent job invoking the growing madness boiling in Strickland – highlighting his character alternatively with hot-white fluorescent lighting and dark shadows.
The Shape of Water shows off some of Del Toro’s most ambitious liberties taken as a director – a fantastical daydream – a classical ballroom dance sequence between Elisa and her Amphibious Romeo. Perhaps a bridge too far for some viewers, this scene – along with a few other notable moments – are del Toro’s best attempts as elevating The Shape of Water from an oddball period romance to something more. Unfortunately, while expertly crafted, he never captures the magic of his 2006 masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth. The emotional value of this creature feature just doesn’t have quite the same pull.
- Story: 7/10 – The narrative will be uniquely original to most viewers – but could be too eccentric for some.
- Production: 10/10 – Singularly crafted and executed – from set design to creature CGI.
- Acting: 9/10 -The trio of Hawkins, Shannon, and Jenkins share a chemistry that shows off each of their individual talents.
- Directing: 9/10 – We don’t mind bragging that this is the 6th consecutive del Toro film we’ve seen in theaters. The Shape of Water is worth seeing on the big screen.
8/10 – Beautifully shot and powerfully acted, Guillermo del Toro crafts a distinctive tale of forbidden love worthy of a viewing; even though it wasn’t as effective as we had hoped going in – or as emotionally absorbing as critics have suggested.