The Shape of Wa­ter

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO - — Jonathan Richards

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

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