Let me start off by saying I have never been a fan of Guillermo Del Toro, his directing style or his choice of material. The Shape of Water, written, produced and directed by Del Toro, dramatizing the story of a mute janitor who falls in love with an aquatic creature housed at a Government lab in the 1960s, will probably be regarded as one of his best films.
Sally Hawkins plays the role of Elisa, a mute woman working for a government agency in Baltimore, Maryland. Single and lonely, she found friendship among the oppressed — a black woman who also works as a janitor at the same employment, and her next-door neighbor, a closeted gay man who tries to take back his job as an artist for an advertising agency in an era where photographs are replacing custom art. She finds solitude and companionship with an amphibious creature, brought to the lab under special guard. But when the military insists dissecting the gill-man may provide the key to beating the Russians in the space race, Elisa, with assistance from her friends, sets out to free the creature and return him to his native habitat.
Everyone playing leads in this movie delivered fine performances but the Oscar-worthy contender here is Sally Hawkins, best known for Godzilla (2014) and the two Paddington movies. After watching numerous silent films featuring Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Laurel and Hardy, she mimics the best of a silent screen actress by communicating through the use of facial expressions and emotion. For the benefit of the audience who did not understand sign language, subtitles were provided at times; actors reading her hand signals verbally communicated on screen as well. But no one needed either of these to read her thoughts as projected on the screen. This was how Hawkins delivered what might be the best performance of the year. The actress will receive numerous nominations come awards season — and deservingly so.
Many who saw the movie trailer promoting The Shape of Water might have suspected this was an updated rendition of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The costume of the gill-man was clearly inspired by the 1954 classic. Michael Shannon’s character says early in the movie that the creature was picked up in a river in South America, the same setting for the 1954 horror classic. But this creature has heart in a world where everyone privileged is being mean to everyone else. This may be why the relationship between Elisa and the gill-man stands out through the movie.
Do not mistake this for a horror film. This is clearly a love story, inspired by the 1940s studio musicals (Betty Hutton, Alice Faye, etc.) and the director initially wanted to shoot the entire film in black and white. Believe-it-or-not, it costs more to shoot a film in black and white these days and due to budgetary concerns, the film was shot in color with a green motif. Watch carefully for numerous tip-of-the-hat references such as Jenkins’ sketch of Audrey Hepburn on his drafting board in one scene — Sally Hawkins’ character was named Elisa, the character Audrey Hepburn played in My Fair Lady. In the opening scenes of the movie, Hawkins was clearly mimicking Audrey Hepburn’s shy-yet-boyish style.
To enjoy this offbeat underwater love story, director Guillermo Del Toro set out to accomplish the suspension of disbelief — an essential element to watching a fantasy similar to Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid, Lost Horizon and King Kong. Even if the movie does not win a ton of awards in the coming months, it can be regarded as one of the best fantasy movies made.