“Auteur” is a term I don’t casually throw around but it’s the one word that immediately comes to mind after watching “The Shape of Water,” director Guillermo del Toro‘s exquisite and dreamy fantasy horror romance. This film is so enchantingly beautiful, so outright magical, that it captivates and commands your attention from its opening seconds until the closing scene. I’m almost as surprised as you that a 1960s period piece about a romance between mute maid Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and a scaly South American sea monster (Doug Jones) is among the very best films of the year.
Elisa works at a top secret research lab, scraping gum off the floors and mopping urine off the walls along with her talkative co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). She lives a lonely life of routine that’s set to a timer, from her morning breakfast to a quick and carnal bath to her tiring bus commute, stopping off to visit her neighbor, the aging artist Giles (Richard Jenkins). When a mysterious amphibian man creature (referred to only as “the asset”) is wheeled into her workplace one morning, Elisa watches in horror as he is tortured, chained and beaten by the psychotic G-man in charge, Strickland (Michael Shannon). Overcome with curiosity and sympathy, she strikes up a friendship with the asset using hard boiled eggs, sign language and jazz music as methods of communication (instead of cattle prods and violence). When it becomes apparent that the creature is going to be killed, Elisa devises a plan to break him out of the research facility.
What’s so great about these characters is that they are all people who are invisible to the powerful white male workforce. The sassy African-American cleaning lady, a plain-Jane mute woman, an aging gay artist; all ignored outcasts and underdogs who become moral heroes when called upon. There’s a relevant subtext about how society treats the “other” and the unchecked lack of humanity that exists in the human world. It’s heartbreaking to think that we live in a time where prejudice and hatred have shoved their way back into accepted culture, but intolerance and inhumane treatment aren’t celebrated in del Toro’s tale of acceptance, unity and love.
The performances are all utterly terrific, including an unexpectedly subdued turn from Shannon (an actor known for his tendency to ‘play to the balcony’ through shouting). He manifests an evil yet completely believable villain who grows increasingly unhinged as he realizes a serious threat to his position and perspective. Shannon perfectly expresses the sadistic glee of a cruel, heartless man who fears the misunderstood monster and, when faced with confusion and an incomprehensible test of his worldview, lashes out in the only way he knows how: by setting out to destroy.
Jenkins doesn’t have a very showy role but it’s emotionally satisfying on the deepest of levels, understated and heartbreaking and unforgettable. He’s a loyal friend to the orphaned Elisa, their relationship being the closest thing to family either of them has left. And while I’d love to see Spencer take on a role other than a mouthy best friend, she brings the right amount of empathy and compassion to her character.
That brings us to Hawkins — my god, Hawkins — she emotes so much yet utters nothing, speaking only through body movements, facial expressions and sign language. Her eloquent performance is arguably the best of her career, unparalleled in its quiet and powerful elegance. She goes for broke in a glorious, liberating way that gets deep down to the theme that beats at the very heart of the film: embracing who you are with every ounce of your being.
The beauty and the beast story flips the traditional 1950s sci-fi movie on its head, creating a romantic fairy tale where the iconic scene of a scary creature carrying a girl becomes one of grace instead of horror. The film combines elements from a wide range of classic genres, including film noir, spy thrillers, and musicals. It’s a fable of the burning desire for human connection, of choosing kindness over cruelty and love over fear.
There’s a mesmerizing originality that transcends anything I’ve seen on screen this year, and it’s a magical and deeply moving film with a great humanity and a passionate romanticism. It’s a visual beauty too, with rich greens and blues that often give the sensation of being underwater. Needless to say, it’s gorgeously directed as well.
People often ask me what earns a movie a perfect 5 star rating, to which I respond that “I know it when I see it.” Within the first 15 minutes, I was so swept up in the enchanting romance of it all that I knew I was experiencing something truly special.
“The Shape of Water” is cinematic magic at its finest. Want to see a movie that pulses with an abundance of pure creativity and vision? This is it.
As an animal lover who is sensitive to scenes of cruelty in films, I do want to warn others that something pretty horrific happens to a cat (worth mentioning because it’s bloody and graphic). Although it’s not a real cat of course, it is sure to upset a lot of viewers.