The Shape of Water
THE SHAPE OF WATER, fantasy drama, rated R, Center for Contemporary Arts and Violet Crown, 4 chiles As The Shape of Water begins to flow, try to imagine another actress as Sally Hawkins’ character, the mute janitor Elisa. It’s not easy. Guillermo del Toro, the film’s writer and director, couldn’t. He wrote it for the actress, and the role should land her on Oscar’s shortlist.
Elisa lives alone, in a little apartment above a movie palace. She begins her day with a bath, and we discover right away that she has an erotic connection with water. She puts on eggs to hard-boil, slips into the tub, and pleasures herself to the ticking of the egg timer. Then she gets dressed, and drops in on her elderly gay neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a sweetly wistful commercial illustrator and recovering drunk, with whom she watches old musicals on a little black-and-white TV (the movie is set in the early ’60s). One delightful moment has Giles and Elisa sitting together on his sofa with their feet doing a little soft-shoe to a classic Bill “Bojangles” Robinson/ Shirley Temple movie dance. Another, later on, is a full-fledged ’30s musical dance extravaganza.
Elisa takes the bus to work. Work is the night shift at a mysterious military science facility outside of Baltimore, where she and her pal Zelda (Octavia Spencer) chat via sign language, move invisibly through the labs and corridors, and mop up after brainy men who can bend the path of atoms but can’t hit a urinal.
Things get going when a heavily guarded package arrives, a top-secret “asset” ushered in by Strickland (a malevolent Michael Shannon), the facility’s head of security. It’s a tank containing a humanoid water creature (Hellboy’s Doug Jones) that Strickland has captured from a river deep in the Amazon, where the natives worshiped it as a god. What Strickland was doing down there isn’t clear, but he has brought the creature to the facility for study, and the two have developed a mutual antipathy along the way.
The creature is amphibian, with a dual respiratory system that can function out of water for limited periods. He’s tall and scaly, a cousin to the creature from the Black Lagoon, with gills, webbed hands, and feet but a sensitive, handsome face, and Elisa finds herself drawn to him. She treats him with kindness, offers him the hard-boiled eggs from her lunch, and plays him big-band recordings on a portable turntable. Gradually her feelings of tenderness ripen into a full-fledged Beauty-and-the-Beast attraction that take us beyond the point where Disney fades to black.
Wielding an electric cattle prod, Strickland brutalizes the creature, and after a savage bit of retaliation, he decides that the best course is to cut it up for study, to see if there’s any useful military knowledge to be gleaned for advantage in the Cold War contest with the Soviet Union, then at high tide. This is resisted by one of the facility’s top scientists, Dr. Hoffstetler (a soulful Michael Stuhlbarg), who turns out to have secrets of his own.
The movie is much concerned with prejudice and the lot of the outsider. Giles’ homosexuality marginalizes and tortures him. Elisa’s muteness, suffered in a childhood accident that left gill-like scratches on her throat, sets her apart. Strickland’s hostility to the otherness of the amphibian creature is reflected in the casual racism he shows toward Zelda. The glimpses we see of Strickland’s home life, with his perfect suburban home, two children, and a domestic and sexually enthusiastic blond wife, suggest a midcentury ideal from which any deviation is discouraged. And love between species, needless to say, is strictly beyond the pale. Hawkins, who was so memorable recently in
Maudie, another tale of a woman living with and overcoming a physical challenge, dominates this story without a spoken word. She travels through her world with a sunniness that lights up the darkness, physical and metaphorical, that surrounds her. And when she finds love, it’s like the sun bursting through heavy overhanging clouds.
The Shape of Water is del Toro’s most visually rapturous movie since Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). He and co-writer Vanessa Taylor have created a story that moves effortlessly forward through multiple genres, encompassing gothic romance, fairy tale, Cold War spy thriller, and fantasy, with other bits and pieces strewn in. The sumptuous visuals are dominated by water themes. The film opens on a gorgeously atmospheric underwater reverie, and from baths to boiling eggs, from mop buckets to rivulets of rain chasing each other along the outside of a bus window, water is a constant presence and theme.
Water by itself has no shape. It adapts itself to the contours of any vessel that it fills. The same is true of love.
Separated at birth: Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones