Director Guillermo del Toro has gone all out with “The Shape of Water,” which he wrote with Vanessa Taylor, and which is an outrageous stretch even for him. A woman in love with a monster from the deep? Thanks to the imagination of the screenplay and a touching, endearing performance by SaLLy Hawkins, the film works.
The year is 1963 and the setting is a U.S. government laboratory, where shy Elisa (Hawkins), who is mute, works along with Zelda, played with panache by Octavia Spencer, with the janitorial duty of keeping the place clean. Elisa becomes fascinated when a monster found in the sea is brought in a crate to be housed for observation and then destruction.
Michael Shannon is cast as a federal agent whose job is to watch over the creature, played sympathetically by Doug Jones. But the agent is a nasty sort who taunts the captive and would like to kill it sooner than later. Shannon’s performance is properly villainous, and reflects both the pressure and frustrations of his having to follow orders from above.
Elisa secretly gets to know the creature and feed him, and they develop a rapport that is amusing and tender to watch. She not only becomes his ally, but aware of the danger to him, concocts a plan to kidnap him and put him back in the water. She eventually gets help from Zelda and from her sympathetic neighbor, Giles, colorfully portrayed by Richard Jenkins.
The episode that follows thrusts everyone into danger, but del Toro takes the situation a daring step further by setting up a sexual relationship between Elisa and her new-found friend. Are you ready for that? The bathtub scene we see is attention-grabbing, to say the least.
In the beginning the film has been framed as a fairy tale, which pays off eventually when, after a violent battle, there is the surprise fairy tale ending too beautifully filmed to describe here with a spoiler.
“The Shape of Water” qualifies as the most unusual film of the year and is further evidence of del Toro’s fertile imagination and his ability to translate his ideas into enthralling visuals. On this occasion there may also be award consideration for Hawkins, given her commanding performance as the shy young woman who finds herself through this odd relationship. A Fox Searchlight release. Reviewed October 9, 2017.