When a mute girl named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) encounters an Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) while cleaning a laboratory, she’s smitten. Her uncomfortable romantic interest in this strange wounded being runs deep, more than just a passing fetish. Emotions have power and that power must be explored.
A wonderfully dark, adult fairy tale, director Guillermo del Toro (“Hellboy”) ventures back to his best work namely 2006’s perfect “Pan’s Labyrinth” delivering a true awards contender.
The soon to be classic tale has a cleaning lady falling in love with an Amphibian Man. It’s an interspecies love story, pure and simple. The fact that the producers had faith in del Toro, who wrote this film with “Game of Thrones” producer Vanessa Taylor, is really amazing. And the fact that del Toro and his game cast pulls it off so marvelously is equally impressive. “The Shape of Water” contains graphic, but impossibly beautiful imagery of two creatures expressing their love and affection for one another in the most physical way possible. In other words, there’s forbidden sex here. But what could have been exploitive and lurid is nothing of the sort.
Hawkins’ work as Elisa should garner her a best actress nomination. Since her character is mute in the film, she relies on sign language to communicate. We saw this approach in the excellent “War for the Planet of the Apes” earlier this year. But in addition to using her hands, the role requires Hawkins to use her entire body as she expresses her love for the aquatic/terrestrial creature. It’s a fearless performance.
The familiar story elements contain a villain and Michael Shannon is well up to the task. He plays Richard Strickland, a no-nonsense military type leader who captured the Amphibian Man and brought him to the research facility to be poked and prodded. The paranoid and twisted Strickland is the product of then new Cold War concerns about growing Russian influence and spying.
One of the doctors leading the examination of the creature is played by Michael Stuhlbarg, whose work in “Call Me By Your Name” might get some awards consideration. Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer plays a fellow cleaner in the laboratory, who is one of Elisa’s defenders.
A subplot involves Elisa’s sensitive neighbor, played by Richard Jenkins. He’s a gay advertising artist, who is struggling to get back into the business that is beginning to abandon artistic renderings in favor of photographs. Jenkins is perfect in this important role, because he accepts Elisa’s oddness and her desire to free the Amphibian Man from his prison with very little convincing.
Finally, the film benefits greatly from Doug Jones’ precise work as the Amphibian Man. While the character is partially the creation of computers, it is obvious that Jones is wearing an amazing suit of some sort and inhabiting the creature as only an actor with his experience can. Reminiscent of the Gill Man from “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” the Amphibian Man is part throw-back and part the product of modern techniques. Still, unlike the weightless CGI that made the villain in “Justice League” instantly forgettable, Jones’ Amphibian Man looks real and that’s because so much of what we are seeing is likely tangible and Jones in that amazing suit.
A picture postcard in production design, del Toro’s talents have never been better used. Where his last outing, “Crimson Peak,” certainly looked great, the story was ultimately a little dull. Here he pleases viewers by making the odd story accessible and somewhat familiar, while also preserving the adult elements that set his movies apart from typical mainstream fare. “The Shape of Water” was one of 2017’s best films.