Can a lonely and mute female janitor and a sea monster find love? Well, yes … if you let yourself get caught up in the fantastical, eccentric romance of Oscar-nominated The Shape of Water.
In the hands of some, this flick may have become a comic book come to life—a glorified B-level horror movie. But director Guillermo Del Toro, takes the story of this unlikely duo and makes it not only believable but sorrowful, lyrical, mystical, mythical, strange, and, well, magic. From the opening sequence—a dreamlike tour through an underwater apartment with floating couches and clocks, you know this is going to be an otherworldly experience—and it is. It’s a film noir fairytale for adults, and it has awards noms written all over it.
Elisa, exquisitely played by Sally Hawkins, is a plain, lonely woman whose mundane existence includes working at a mysterious Baltimore government facility as a night janitor. Her only friends are her next-door neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), an aging commercial artist, and her sassy pal Zelda (Octavia Spencer in prime form), another cleaning woman at the facility.
One night, a sea monster—part man, part fish—referred to by officials as “The Asset” is brought into the lab in a tank. We learn that he was captured in South America and has some sort of powers, and that the people there thought he was a god. Playing him is longtime Del Toro collaborator Doug Jones, who gives humanity to the creature via his mournful expressions and every nuanced shrug and slump of his tall, toned, lanky body.
The government, of course, has no interest in treating The Asset with dignity or learning to communicate with him. Instead they want to pick him apart, and one sadistic agent in particular named Richard Strickland (played by Michael Shannon) seems to get off on torturing him with a cattle prod.
There are some side stories, which help remind us that it’s 1962. Russian spies want to steal the creature, and Americans' paranoia over winning the cold a war is in full force. We also get a glimpse into Strickland’s paint-by-number suburban life, complete with a modern tract house, perky blond wife, two kids, and a shiny blue Cadillac—but the main focus is Elisa’s budding romance with “The Asset.”
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Sensing a kindred misfit, she slowly befriends the captive, secretly playing him music, teaching him sign language, dancing for him, and bringing him hard-boiled eggs. A human and a “creature” falling in love is nothing new—Beauty and the Beast and Godzilla come to mind. But in this tale, the human is as much of an outcast as the monster. And while the development of their relationship to its, uh, fullest extent may shock some, it was well executed and believable. Their longing was palpable.
Until The Asset comes along, Elisa’s life is routine—for fun, she watches old musicals with neighbor Giles and his cats. A struggling illustrator working on a Jello campaign, Giles finds it increasingly hard to compete with photographers. He’s also smitten with a young male server at the local pie shop. He’s so infatuated that he keeps ordering their terrible key lime pies just to get a glimpse of his would-be paramour, and as a result his refrigerator becomes packed with gaudy green slices of the sweet/sour confection. But I digress.
When Elisa learns of the sadistic Strickland’s intention to kill and dissect her merman lover (he overhears a general tell him to “crack the damn thing open”), she hatches a plan to free him with the help of Giles and eventually Zelda. It’s probably no accident that the film's heroes are a disabled woman, a gay man, an African American woman, and someone from another world (an immigrant?), while the villain here is a white, privileged, male government official.
Things, of course, get complicated, plans go awry, and surprises, both good and bad ensue. The art direction—muted jewel tones, retro wardrobes, period set pieces—and lush cinematography and eerie lighting, plus the melancholy yet hop-filled score by Oscar-winning composer Alexander Desplat, are all worth the price of admission.
I’ll be seeing this one again.