Sunday, January 14, 2018

Del Toro's "Shape of Water" is Magnificent

Director Guillermo Del Toro has thrilled us with his visionary style and taken us to some incredible places in such acclaimed movies as The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labryinth, as well as the underrated Crimson Peak. Now he takes his artistry to a new level with his latest release, The Shape of Water. It’s a masterfully realized fantasy and a touching love story, featuring excellent performances by a top-notch cast. The film takes place in Baltimore in the early 1960s, during the height of the Cold War. The story centers on Elisa Esposito, who works as a custodian at a government facility. Elisa is mute, and communicates using sign language. She lives above a movie theatre and has two loyal friends: her neighbor Giles (with whom she shares meals and watches classic movies on TV) and her co-worker Zelda.

One day, an aquatic creature, which was captured in South America, is brought to the facility. The personnel there are studying the “monster” in order to gain an advantage over the Russians in the space race. One staff member, Colonel Strickland, abuses the creature on a daily basis, and sees it only as a means to an end.  Elisa is intrigued by this “monster,” and feels a strong kinship with it. Elisa tries to communicate with the creature, and befriend it. She starts bringing it meals, playing music for it, and teaching it sign language. The two form a close bond, and Elise decides to help the creature escape. That decision will change both of their lives (and the lives of Elisa’s friends) forever.

The cast is excellent. Sally Hawkins is a standout as Elise. She communicates all of Elise’s emotions; loneliness, passion, pain and ultimately joy, using mostly her eyes and her hands. It’s a luminous performance. She’s matched by an excellent supporting cast, including the incredible Richard Jenkins as Giles, and the wonderful Octavia Spencer as Zelda. Michael Shannon expertly enacts the villainous Colonel Strickland. Michael Stuhlbarg does a nice turn as a compassionate scientist who helps our heroes free the creature. Doug Jones, who’s the man inside the monster suit, does a superlative job portraying the creature. He’s done a great job playing monsters in other Del Toro projects (like Hellboy) but in this film he does some magnificent work. He imbues the character with such dignity and humanity that you can’t help but feel empathy for him.

The film also features a subtle message about tolerance and the acceptance of people’s (and other species) differences: Giles is a closeted gay man, and Zelda is an African-American woman. They’re two of the most positive and fully realized characters in the film. Del Toro doesn’t hit us over the head with a “message,” but you can’t help thinking about the time period in which these characters are living (the 1960s) and the things they had to endure from people like the violent and abusive Strickland, who essentially sees everyone else as being beneath him. It’s also a nice touch that the Giles character is an illustrator (like Del Toro) allowing us to see some of the story through his eyes. Giles also opens and closes the film with some marvelous narration, that truly sets the tone for this lovely, powerful and enchanting film.

The Shape of Water is part fairy tale, part love story and part monster movie. Del Toro (who has always felt a kinship with the monsters in stories like this) has stated that he was partly inspired to write the film based on his experience seeing Creature From The Black Lagoon as a child. He wondered why the monster didn’t get the girl. The movie plays to all of Del Toro’s strengths as a filmmaker. He and his technical crew have created a truly original look for the film. Of course, the fact that Elisa lives above a movie theatre allows Del Toro to compare the fantasy of the world of movies with the fantastical events taking place within his story. The Shape of Water is a lovely, emotional and powerful film. If you are partial to love stories, lyrical fantasies, and/or are a fan of Del Toro’s work, this is a must see. It’s hands down one of the best films of 2017. The movie features some astonishing, beautiful and brilliantly realized images that will stay with you long after the movie is over. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer:

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