Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” a grotesquely gorgeous fairy tale, might be the most epically romantic monster movie ever. The film is a delightfully subversive and heartrending love story; deeply original, boundary-pushing and genuinely emotional and moving.
Set in the early 1960s, Sally Hawkins stars as Elisa, a mute woman who lives in a dank apartment above a glorious old movie palace in Baltimore. She cares for her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), a struggling illustrator, and works a graveyard shift cleaning a government facility, working with the brash and funny Zelda (Octavia Spencer), her translator and protector.
One night, the women witness a new “asset” being wheeled into the building in an iron water tank, guarded by a menacing security director, Strickland (Lexington native Michael Shannon). Intrigued by the flapping of fins, Elisa lingers in the lab whenever she can to catch a glimpse of the mysterious amphibian. In the murky waters, she discovers that this greenish-gold fish-man, powerfully strong, is as gentle as a lamb when she woos him with hard-boiled eggs and big band records.
She forges a bond with the creature, with del Toro using visual storytelling for this couple that doesn’t speak. Hawkins’ performance is the lynchpin. She’s mesmerizing in wordlessly expressing every corner and facet of her character’s emotional journey.
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It’s not easy for these two to be in love, especially when Strickland has dark intentions. Locked in a Cold War-era Space Race, the U.S. government is convinced the creature could be its “space dog,” thanks to his unique breathing system, and is racing against the clock against the Russians.
The world that del Toro crafts in “The Shape of Water” is dreamy, dark and damp. The film takes place entirely at night, offering a quiet unreality, everything cast in an eerie blueish-green hue.
“The Shape of Water” hits that sweet spot of lovely, dark, poignant and bloody. Though it is pure of heart, it’s an adult film, with sex, violence and serious themes about identity and politics. The extended climax feels prolonged, but del Toro uses that time to establish the characters and motivation so that the bloodshed is earned.
The heroes are outsiders, long discriminated against and ostracized by the white patriarchy, and they band together to save this vulnerable creature far from home. In the face of terror, they champion love against hate, acceptance against destruction. It’s a simple yet powerfully resonant message.
‘The Shape of Water’
Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language. 2:03. AMC Classic, Fayette, Frankfort, Georgetown, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester.