Rarely does a film grab me from the very first frame, pulling me into a world of imagination and wonder, offering up a compelling, fascinating and peculiar story, but that’s exactly the experience of watching the brilliant film The Shape of Water. It’s best described as “phantasmagorical” and is a love story between a lonely cleaner at a creepy Cold War research facility and a creature from the Amazonian jungles. But there are so many levels to this film that you could easily pick out a half dozen other storylines to focus upon if you prefer.
Set in the early 1960’s during the height of the Cold War, The Shape of Water revolves around the life and imagination of lonely facilities cleaner Elisa (Sally Hawkins). Elisa and her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) are responsible for keeping the classified military research facility clean and tidy. Heading up a particularly secretive research project is the aggressive “man’s man” Strickland (Michael Shannon), who will do whatever it takes to ensure that the Americans win and the Commies lose.
Elisa learns that the latest research project is a creature from South America and is subsequently surprised to find a kindred spirit. It’s not just an animal, though, it’s a humanoid male who has been trapped in the facility and subject to cruel experiments by Strickland and crew. When Elisa learns that something particularly dire is going to happen to the amphibious man, she knows what she has to do: Kidnap him and deliver him to safety, even if she risks imprisonment or worse. After all, love knows no bounds.
Her fellow cleaner Zelda is pulled into the scheme, as is Elisa’s delightful older neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), another lonely heart who seeks a man with whom to share his bachelor existence. But what can they do against Strickland, the surveillance systems and the military guards that keep a close watch on the facility day and night?
There’s an exciting thriller aspect to The Shape of Water, but director Guillermo del Toro never loses sight of its heart either, nor its fantasy elements. The entire production, from the gorgeous and entrancing opening scene to the last frame, is stunningly assembled, a level of lush production that is too rare in movies (the most recent example I can think of is the equally beautiful Hugo, which won well deserved Oscars for cinematography, visual effects and art direction).
The performances are also delightful, with each character imbued with a fascinating quirk or two, from Strickland’s addiction to hard candies to Zelda’s constant bickering with her do-nothing husband, to Giles and his artistic creations depicting the prototypical and idealized American nuclear family from his lonely bachelor pad. The standout is Sally Hawkins (Elisa), who delivers a note-perfect performance as a lonely mute who’s waited all her life for someone to love, a woman blessed with the ability to see people for who they are, not how they appear.
Is it family friendly? I wouldn’t recommend younger children see it because there are some definite scenes of tension and some violence, including people getting shot, beaten up and the amphibious man being tortured. For teenagers and above, however, particularly if you tell them that it’s a fantasy and a few of the scenes are going to be a bit weird, it will prove a compelling love story suitable and quite engaging for boys and girls both.
All in all, The Shape of Water is on my list for best – and certainly most interesting – films of the year. Go see it, and be prepared for some good, old fashioned, and yes, slightly peculiar storytelling and a reminder of just how amazing good cinema can be. Strongly recommended.