When I first heard the premise of “The Shape of Water” from Mexican auteur filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, I couldn’t believe it. I laughed. A mute janitress falls in love with a sea creature who seems he’s come directly from the Black Lagoon? And then I saw it! And I just fell in love with it! Every aspect, every character, every detail is just beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!
It’s one of the best films of the year.
Sally Hawkins is a British actress, who I fell in love with years ago. Master British Filmmaker Mike Leigh created an entire film around her charming, though hardly conventionally beautiful self in “Happy Go Lucky.” Sally Hawkins is just one of those actresses who you just want to jump out of your movie seat and embrace, but never more so than in “The Shape of Water” which has to rank first among del Toro’s masterpieces. It’s so wondrous you just gasp! It’s a Beauty and the Beast for our time!
And Academy Award winner Octavia Spenser is in it, too, playing fellow janitress Zelda, who understands Hawkins, a mute’s, sign language, and keeps translating for all and sundry when the inevitable “What is she saying?!?”pops up over and over again.
I predict both actresses will be nominated for Academy Awards and neither has ever been better than in “Shape of Water.”
It’s Del Toro’s taking his country’s Magical Realism to the max. He makes it seem totally plausible in 1950’s New Orleans(or some Southern American city like it) that there exists a government sponsored aquatic undercover facility to capture sea creatures, like the one here, who is simply referred to as “The Asset.”
Sally Hawkins is just wondrous in this! It’s a historic performance that will be talked about forever. She comes from that jolie-laide tradition of British film actresses, like Rita Tushingham, who are by no stretch of the imagination beautiful, but they BECOME beautiful as the film wears on.
And she does the impossible in “Shape of Water!” And she’s a mute! Learning sign language for a part is no mean feat. As the Actor’s Branch of the Academy is often quoted as saying, “The degree of difficulty.” In in The Shape of Water” the degree of difficulty for Hawkins is just off the charts.
And ~spoiler alert~ there is a black and white musical number from the ’30s, as Elisa(Hawkins) falls more and more in love and she is voiced and sung by no less than Renee Fleming. and you totally believe every minute of this ethereal magic. She sings! She dances! Elegantly and effortlessly! She’s is Cinderella at the Ball! Give that girl an Oscar!
Michael Shannon is the terrifying villain, working for the government, and constantly jabbing the sea-monster with an electric cattle prod. The monster is chained like Charles Laughton in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” The prod makes him squeal and bleed.
Shannon brings as much dimension to this baddie as is as (in)humanly possible. Daniel Jenkins is Hawkins’ gay next door neighbor, a struggling (and balding) commercial artist, whose work is appreciated no where. He, Zelda (Spencer), and oh yes, Michael Stuhlbarg as the GOOD scientist who turns out to be a Russian spy, all form this small team of four, trying to rescue the Monster from certain death. (He can’t live out of water for long.) They kidnap him, and then the suspense really ramps up as “The Shape of Water” turns into a heist film, too, as well as a great screen romance where you don’t want the two lovers to be separated by the government baddies.
Stuhlbarg is having a real break-through year, with his performance of the sympathetic Dad of Timothee Chalamet in “Call Me By Your Own Name”which is getting major Oscar buzz. too.
“The Shape of Water” is such a sweeping, even epic romance that it could sweep all of the above into the Oscar race.
And I have to also note that the happier Sally Hawkins character becomes the more it starts to rain. The last few scenes are very reminiscent of that other great romance, the French musical film “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” Music here by Alexandre Desplat and the astounding underwater and above-ground cinematography by Dan Laustsen.