Gods and Monsters Indeed
By far the better Beauty and the Beast movie this year!
The Shape of Water is Guillermo del Toro’s passion project. Equal parts fairy tale and monster movie, there’s an abundance of affection to this film that’s very easy to detect. Del Toro puts all the effort he can muster into every frame, and it results in the most beautiful movie of 2017.
Set in the 1960’s, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute living a lonely life in Baltimore with an unemployed advertising artist, Giles (Richard Jenkins). She works with Zelda (Octavia Spencer) as a custodian at a government research institute where Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) is keeping a mysterious amphibian creature (Doug Jones) he found in South America, where the locals worshipped him. Curious, Elisa begins to form a connection with the creature, bonded by their mutual inability to communicate, and works to save it from Strickland’s sadistic wrath.
There’s nothing all that unusual about this synopsis. It’s the classic Beauty and Beast story, repurposed in a new context. Luckily, del Toro knows that the audience knows this, so he works to give the movie a lot of personality. This means setting the story in Red Scare-era America, which both provides a unique backdrop while giving the narrative a more believable atmosphere of fear. It also means the film can have a sense of humour. There are some great jokes and a plethora of wonderful homages to classic film. The pacing never lags because of this; in every scene the movie is giving you something to engage with. The screenplay by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor is much the credit of this, the characters and the plot being so well-written and enjoyable that it gives the film an unbelievable freshness.
It’s worth noting the commentary that each of the heroic characters in this film is an outsider: Elisa is mute, the creature is an “aberration”, and Giles and Zelda are gay and black in a time when neither were socially accepted. Partly as a result of this theming, these characters are the movies’ subtle strengths and the cast is marvellous. At the centre of it is the bewilderingly good Sally Hawkins, who even manages to top her performance in Maudie as the adorable, silent protagonist. Without saying a word, she conveys every emotion flawlessly, every action, mastering sign language, and convincingly shares chemistry with the strange fish-man. Speaking of whom, Doug Jones deserves a lot of credit for his performance. He’s played numerous fantastical creatures for del Toro before, most notably in Pan’s Labyrinth, but here he’s especially earning his screen-time, emoting and performing with ease through incredible make-up and prosthetics. And I’m so happy to see this creature rendered so impressively and creatively through practical means! The romance between Elisa and the creature, bizarre though it is, is actually sweet, and you find yourself caring immensely for both characters from their first appearance.
Michael Shannon reminds us how scary he can be as the villain of this picture. There are times his characterization as irredeemably evil is a tad overdone and irrelevant, particularly a couple casually racist remarks to Zelda and one uncomfortable scene with Elisa. But overall, he manages to be a serious and intimidating presence. The often under-appreciated Richard Jenkins is terrific as the most human character of the film: a sad, disgruntled, cynical, but still kind and loyal best friend to Elisa. Octavia Spencer, who provides a lot of comic relief, is quite good too. And I love Michael Stuhlbarg in this movie, who plays a scientist called Dr. Hoftstetler, with his own feelings on the creature and a secret that leads to its own subplot. I’ve been a fan of Stuhlbarg since he stole every scene he was in on Boardwalk Empire, and the dedication he puts into this performance is top notch. Jenkins’ performance is nominated for an Oscar, but Stuhlbarg’s is just as great.
The visuals of this movie are breathtaking. Which is funny, because aside from the creature, you’d think there wouldn’t be many special effects. But del Toro is an artist who composes his scenes very intricately. The result is a lot of stunning shots and captivating moments of beauty. The scene from the poster is a perfect example of this, with the creature and Elisa floating, agitated, under water. The first interaction between the two leads is similarly mesmerizing, but with a slight macabre edge that has the essence of myth. The lighting and shadow usage contribute a lot to this, so too does the production design -utilizing an environment’s state, whether vacant or cluttered, cavernous or claustrophobic to enhance its visual mood. Alexandre Desplat’s score and the musical choices are another really exceptional quality, capturing the dramatic intensity, while at the same time a sense of fairy tale whimsy. And all this is quite a lot for a movie that ultimately boils down to being Beauty and the Beast (though less Disney, more Cocteau) but with the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
The Shape of Water is masterful; with compelling characters and a tapestry of rich visuals to enliven an age-old poetic story. That it’s exceedingly well-made, well-performed and constantly evident that del Toro’s heart is in every beat only adds to the endearing elegance of this strange but absolutely alluring love story.
The Shape of Water is now playing at Galaxy Cinemas in Moose Jaw