Director Guillermo del Toro has one foot in reality and the other in magic. His most critically acclaimed film to date is “Pan’s Labyrinth,” a tape heavily infused with fantasy. Despite the high bar del Toro has set for himself, he recaptures the magic of that piece in his latest offering, “The Shape of Water.” With similar themes, characters, and plot, the two can easily be compared against each other. Whereas “Pan’s Labyrinth” is grounded in a grimly realistic setting, the world of “The Shape of Water” is too heavily stylized. As a result, its cinematic impact suffers, but the film remains a beautiful and touching work nonetheless.
Set in early ‘60s Baltimore, the film follows a mute woman, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), who works as a janitor at a government research facility run by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). While cleaning one day, she catches a glimpse of the facility’s prized research subject: an amphibious humanoid man, often called “The Asset” (Doug Jones). Over time, the two grow close, and Elisa helps him break out of the facility. Her coworker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and her best friend and neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins) aid Elisa in this dangerous venture.
With an established cast like this, the acting is unsurprisingly terrific. Spencer and Jenkins are the heavyweights, more than filling out their relatively minor roles. Jones’ nonverbal performance as the Amphibious Man terrifies. Shannon seems to have had a blast with this film, as he dials up the evil factor as one of the creepiest villains of his career. His Strickland is everything wrong with America in the 1960s: racist, sexist, and obsessed with power. Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor’s script is chock-full of memorable lines, and Shannon delivers the majority of them with a sneer. “You may think that thing looks human,” he says, matter-of-fact. “It stands on two legs, right? But we’re created in the Lord’s image. You don’t think that’s what the Lord looks like, do you?”
Hawkins, however, outshines them all. Despite not speaking, she is able to communicate every bit as much nuance and emotion as the rest of the cast, if not more. From her initial mousy shyness to her eventual strength and courage, every aspect of Elisa as a character can be seen in Hawkins’ eyes and smile. An actor has nothing to fall back on without dialogue, yet Hawkins never once missteps.
Another wonderful aspect of the film is the cinematography. “The Shape of Water” is gorgeous, making full use of its fantastic premise to set up unbelievable shots. One stand-out example of this is a sex scene that takes place in a room full of water. Additionally, del Toro uses transitions to hammer home water as a motif, and makes the audience very aware of the ubiquity of the element. A book, or at least a thesis, can be written about the presence of water in this film.
Although the fantastical elements make for a beautiful film, they weaken it in some respects—especially in comparison to del Toro’s earlier masterpiece. While “Pan’s Labyrinth” has strong fairy tale influences, it is also a terrifyingly accurate depiction of life after the Spanish Civil War. “The Shape of Water,” by contrast, is set in a stylized and simplified version of Cold War-era America, complete with a KGB spy and an aggressively American general. At times, it seems to be attempting to make a political point, but then undercuts the validity of that point by having unrealistic plot points or scenes (why is a janitor allowed to enter this top-secret room all the time, unsupervised? How can towels at the base of a door make a room mostly waterproof?). These implausible elements, along with a slightly overstuffed plot, weaken the film.
But it is certainly not past the point of redemption. “The Shape of Water” is a beautiful film with an incredible cast, leaving so much to love about the movie. A must-see for fans of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” or movie-lovers in general, del Toro’s latest sees him returning to his finest form for the first time in many years.
—Staff writer Ethan B. Reichsman can be reached at email@example.com.