Movie Review: “The Shape of Water” (R)

Movie Review: "The Shape of Water"The jovial and undeniably skilled Guillermo del Toro is back with his strongest and most personal effort since 2006’s breathtaking (and heartbreaking) “Pan’s Labyrinth.” “The Shape of Water” is a beautifully offbeat fable that fuses the surreal, dreamlike stylings of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Amélie” with the somewhat strange but perfectly fitting romance and humor of Ron Howard’s ’80s gem “Splash.” Of course, there’s plenty of “Creature From the Black Lagoon” and even a little bit of David Cronenberg’s take on “The Fly” thrown in for good measure, too. Given del Toro’s love of monsters, how could there not be?

Set to the backdrop of the Cold War, “The Shape of Water” weaves its tale around Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a lonely mute woman who spends her days performing janitorial duties at a research lab, talking movies with her much older roomie (Richard Jenkins), and dreaming that she’ll one day find her soul mate.

One fateful day, while cleaning around the lab with her friendly co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), Elisa finds a kindred spirit in the form of an amphibious monster that’s been plucked from the Amazon against his will and brought to the states to be poked and prodded. He’s kept prisoner in a water tank by the stern Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), an intense government official who would much rather show everyone whose boss then play nice with his co-workers and test subjects.

Movie Review: "The Shape of Water"Gradually, Elisa bonds with the beautiful creature that’s being held captive, and before long, through the aid of a couple of friendly allies, an elaborate escape plan comes to fruition. But this particular breakout won’t be an easy one as Strickland isn’t about to let his exotic prize get away without a fight.

Sally Hawkins is as warm and delightful as she is uninhibited and strong in a performance that is brought to life by way of signing, facial expressions, and body language. She’s absolutely enchanting in this picture. Of course, she’s given a major assist by Doug Jones, a wonderful actor primarily known for his many amazing creature performances (see his stellar work in del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Hellboy”). As a misunderstood monster, Jones beautifully aids in making us believe that the central bond at the heart of this fantasy is an entirely plausible one. What’s more, he’s beguiling in a way that would make E.T. proud.

Rounding out a very strong supporting cast are an extremely likable Octavia Spencer as Elisa’s loyal friend and co-worker, a lovable Richard Jenkins who brings a quiet strength and confidence to Elisa’s artistic roommate, and an outstanding Michael Stuhlbarg (also great in 2017’s “Call Me By Your Name”) as a mysterious scientist who may or may not have our heroic creature’s best interests at heart.

Of course, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the real monster in “The Shape of Water” isn’t the one that Elisa has affection for. No, it’s the intensely villainous Richard Strickland who serves as this picture’s primary antagonist. As expected, Shannon has a great time chewing scenery here, and while this could have been a one-note turn in the hands of a lesser actor, Shannon brings enough amusing (and dastardly) flourishes to the table that make the overly confident Strickland one of the most colorfully entertaining baddies of 2017.

Speaking of colorful, filmmakers don’t get any more so than the delightful del Toro. It feels like hyperbole to suggest that this immensely talented Spanish storyteller eats, drinks, and sleeps film, but the proof is in the pudding. Not only is the passion evident in the writing and the overall tone of the film but it comes across loud and clear in the breathtaking cinematography, the stunning art direction, the stellar practical effects, and the lush score. Yes, there are a couple of heavy-handed moments and some slight pacing issues, and while “The Shape of Water” doesn’t quite reach the towering heights of “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Devil’s Backbone,” this wonderful, all-inclusive love letter to monsters comes awfully close.

If you saw del Toro’s moving acceptance speech at the recent Golden Globes ceremony, you know that monsters are heroes in his world. They essentially saved his life. And we the filmgoers are all the luckier for it.

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