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‘The Shape of Water’ is a human love story between a woman and an amphibian

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Guillermo del Toro loves creatures. From the Pale Man in “Pan’s Labyrinth” to the titular character of “Hellboy,” his films have become famous for their inhuman characters. Now, del Toro thinks it is time to give some love back to his creatures.

“The Shape of Water” is del Toro’s newest film. It chronicles the star-crossed romance between Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a strong-willed mute woman who works as a cleaner in an underground government lab, and the strange humanoid amphibian creature (Doug Jones) tortured and imprisoned there by an unhinged, unfeeling government agent, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon).

If it were made by a lesser director, this film might not have been as compelling, but del Toro has a great command of his vision and aesthetic. For anyone who enjoyed the look of the first “Bioshock” game, this film echoes that watery, haunting aesthetic from the opening shot.

“The Shape of Water” is an incredibly visual film. For one, the main protagonist communicates entirely in sign language. Hawkins had to learn period-appropriate American Sign Language for the role, but she communicates like she has done it her entire life. She uses her entire being to convey her words.  

For most of the movie, Elisa is content to let her inner thoughts play out on her face, but when the stakes are high she demands your full attention. During one particularly impassioned speech, her hands flick through the air with ferocity. Her urgency and desperate need to be understood are palpable. Even when her words are repeated aloud, so much meaning is lost by not watching Elisa closely.

The rich greens del Toro paints every frame with constantly remind the viewer of the depths of the sea even if it is a little on the nose at times (several characters discuss the color green multiple times in the movie). Green is touted as the color of the future, but the film reveals it is really the color of the past.

In “The Shape of Water,” hollow progress is painted green. People want unnaturally green jello. A soulless restaurant chain sells neon green, tasteless key-lime pie. Richard Strickland is sold on a green car because it is the car perfect for the “man of the future.”

For both Strickland and Elisa, however, green is representative of where they come from and who they used to be.

The Cold War setting is both endearing and oppressive. Its shiny cars and dreamy music enhance the romantic atmosphere but cannot mask the unspoken problems of the time.

All of the main characters are imprisoned in different ways. Elisa struggles to communicate with a world that refuses to understand her. Her friends Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and Giles (Richard Jenkins) are both part of groups rejected by mainstream society.

What ties all of the protagonists together is their loneliness. Unfortunately in this film, a woman falling for a humanoid amphibian is more likely than a black woman or gay man being in happy relationships. The mutual desire for understanding, however, ultimately makes the relationship between Elisa and the Amphibian Man so endearing.

Hawkins’ portrayal of Elisa is emphatic. Elisa is a woman stuck in a routine in which her only escape is in her mind. She sees that same loneliness in the creature she discovers in the lab. They both receive more understanding from each other than they do from any other characters.

Jones, who plays the Amphibian Man in “The Shape of Water,” is a frequent collaborator with del Toro. Jones played Abe Sapien, another aquatic humanoid, in the “Hellboy” movies as well as the Pale Man and the Faun in “Pan’s Labyrinth.”

Jones has plenty of experience playing inhuman characters but rarely does he get the chance to play the love interest. Though his physicality is more animal at times, Jones’ ability to emote through the prosthetics is extraordinary.The film might not make you fall in love with an amphibian man yourself, but it makes the audience see where Elisa is coming from.

Like any good film set during the Cold War, del Toro includes a Soviet spy subplot. He imbues it, however, with his characteristic compassion through the part of the idealistic Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg). Stuhlbarg plays a Russian scientist turned spy who masquerades as an American scientist in the underground lab. Hoffstetler is forced to defend the creature from the Soviets as well as the merciless Richard Strickland.

As a villain, Richard Strickland is a bad guy on every level. He is a sexist, racist, bible-quoting ego-maniac with little regard for humanity. He is not squeamish and, in a couple of his scenes, you had better not be either.

Despite his total lack of redeeming qualities, Strickland inexplicably has a loving wife and two normal children. The absurdity that a man so unpleasant could have the perfect nuclear family only serves to make the protagonists’ exclusion seem more unjust.

“The Shape of the Water” is a fantastical love story with a fairly swift plot that must be seen to be truly understood. It is visually pleasing enough to warrant the trip to the theatre. It reminds you that, like water, love can break down any boundary.

Grade: A

life@theeagleonline.com


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