Director Guillermo del Toro is one of the great visual storytellers of the current generation, and The Shape of Water is another fully-realized set piece in his canon. Set in the Cold War era 60s, the film follows mute Elisa (Sally Hawkins), who works at a secret government laboratory, who becomes enamored with the mysterious creature that is housed there. While the government wants to dissect the creature, Elisa begins to communicate with him, and, naturally, feels a deeper connection. The fairy-tale romance is played against a more serious threat looming from the hyper-aggressive government operative in charge of the operation (Michael Shannon being all creepy Michael Shannon-y). While the film is beautiful, and everyone is wonderful, it loses a little steam by playing out completely as expected.
Where del Toro normally specializes in the fantastical, his canvas here is steeped in reality. The lab is dark and dank. Elisa’s apartment is narrow and earthy. There is great art direction in the mundane, and it’s a credit to his skill that he makes the drab so visually appealing. The romance is solid, with truly lush and heartfelt moments. But like a fairy tale, it follows a specific pattern, and it’s just a little disappointing coming from a director who has a long history of delivering the unexpected.
Hawkins is great. Without the ability to rely on words, she has to convey so much with looks and body language. The supporting cast is also excellent. Octavia Spencer is Elisa’s trusty co-worker. Richard Jenkins her fatherly neighbor. Michael Stuhlbarg is a scientist. Shannon uses his natural skeeviness to full effect. Each of the characters gets a deeper existence and has a story worth exploring more, but they are only given short vignettes. Spencer is always a welcome sight, but she needs a movie that pushes her beyond being a loyal support figure.
The movie is sweet and thoughtful, but it relies almost too heavily on the on painting the broad strokes of the fairy tale without delving too far into the characters. I liked the movie but I really wanted it to transport me in a way that it left me a bit cold.
My Grade – B-