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The Shape of Water is an enchanting dark fairytale about an unlikely, but undeniably wonderful romance between a mute custodian and a mysterious creature.
Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mute janitor that works at a research facility in 1960s Baltimore. The vile Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings an unknown amphibious creature, the so-called ‘asset’, to the facility, as the study of its biology could prove to be of immense value. The kind, gentle Elisa slowly befriends the Asset (Doug Jones) and plans to help the creature escape from its prison right under Strickland’s nose.
The Shape of Water is not a subtle movie. It aligns itself firmly with the marginalized and the downtrodden, celebrates the bizarre and champions love and kindness over cruelty and hatred. Elisa is sweet, compassionate and caring – she bonds with the Asset over music and hard-boiled eggs. Strickland, by contrast, is as despicable and ruthless as they come – not just overtly racist and sexist, but ill-tempered and often violent. Shannon was a perfect choice for the role and he revels in the unpleasantness of the character.
The exaggerated characterization and overall lack of subtlety not only match the movie’s fairytale story but go hand in hand with The Shape of Water’s stunning visuals, full of mesmerizing blues and sickening greens. This is a movie that’s as vivid in its use of color as it is in imagination and it practically demands to be seen on a big screen.
Yet, for all its whimsy, The Shape of Water is also unmistakably a darker, more adult-minded fantasy fare, full of violence, swearing and sex. In an early scene, Strickland loses a few fingers to the Asset and while they are reattached, the movie doesn’t spare us their gradual, disgusting putrefaction. The colonel also treats his wife as basically a piece of meat to pound away at during an extremely uncomfortable sex scene that mercilessly skewers the stereotypes of the 1960s nuclear family.
That, of course, lies in stark contrast with the much more intimate and tender sex scene between Elisa and The Asset later on. Yes, a human woman has sex with a fish man in The Shape of Water and it is quite wondrous to behold. “Never trust a man” exclaims Elisa’s friend and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) when the former tells her how the fish penis works.
The Asset is quite something to behold, a fantastic meld of monstrous and beautiful that is somehow just as sympathetic when eating live cats as he is in the scenes he shares with Elisa.
Sally Hawkins lights up the screen. Elisa may be mute, but she has a presence that’s impossible to ignore. It’s hard not to fall in love with a character so earnest and kind, who can reach out to fish people with a smile and also sign ‘Fuck you’ to assholes like Strickland.
The subplots about a Soviet spy (Michael Stuhlbarg) caught between his duty and his genuine appreciation for The Asset, and Elisa’s friend and neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted artist desperately trying to fit in an uncaring, commercial world compliment the movie’s themes and overall story well.
The Shape of Water is a great slice of movie magic that’s distinctly Guillermo del Toro flavored. It’s one of his finest and most touching movies to date. It benefits from a uniquely realized central romance and great performances from its lead and supporting actors. This is a dark fantasy that won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but those that can stomach its more gruesome moments will find a heartwarming tale of love and basic human decency that’s well worth seeing.