There are moments when I believe that love is real.
There are moments when all the childhood wounds and all the emotional scars from broken relationships, tragic endings and unresolved traumas somehow dissipate like the clouds in a Simpsons intro and my defenses are gone, my fears are set aside, and all those old tapes that announce themselves like the propaganda announcements tossed over the North Korean border by the South Koreans.
These are the times when I know that "it" is true.
"It is true," I mumble to myself with a deep sigh borne out of resignation and silent determination.
I am, despite all my cynical declarations otherwise, in my deepest heart of hearts a romantic.
I often feel this way every time that Guillermo del Toro enters my life, his familiar embrace of the lost and wayward, the weirdo and the outcast somehow finding its way across my barbed wire defenses and into that tucked away piece of my heart that remains hopeful and even innocent.
The Shape of Water is a masterpiece. It is a masterpiece of eros. It is a masterpiece of innocence. It is a masterpiece of paranoia-tinged horror. It is a master piece of hope. The Shape of Water is a masterpiece of surviving beyond surviving and sometimes, if we believe long enough, that fairytales are, indeed, very, very real.
Set within the framework of the Cold War, The Shape of Water is more than a little bathed within Beauty and the Beast mythology yet, in some strange yet obvious ways both Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) and the strange amphibious creature (Doug Jones) whom she encounters are equally viewed as beasts within the worlds in which they live.
Hawkins is simply extraordinary here as Elisa, serving up her second award-worthy performance of 2017 after Maudie. Elisa is a rather demure, mute young woman who works alongside Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) at a super secret government laboratory where one easily pictures her having been hired solely because she is so unlikely to communicate any of the laboratory's secrets. Elisa's only other true friend in life is her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), an introverted gay artist who feels out of place in the world in which he lives.
Into this world arrives an amphibious man, captured in the Amazon by Agent Strickland (Michael Shannon), who is being kept hidden away from curious eyes while his fate is determined. The Russians, however, have caught wind of the discovery and have planted Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) within the laboratory's confines in an effort to gain access to the creature.
Elisa and this mysterious create are, in ways both simple and profound, kindred spirits. Elisa is a rather demure, unspoken beast whose silence can be heard by those who will take the time to listen. The creature, on the other hand, speaks more loudly yet his true presence goes largely undiscovered until Elisa, sensing there is more to this beast than merely being a beast, takes the time and makes the effort to listen to him.
The Shape of Water is, indeed, a fairytale of sorts. It is romantic, immensely romantic, and you may find yourself mumbling that such a romance can't be possible and certainly can't be convincing. While no further secrets will be shared here, rest assured that del Toro has crafted one of the most sweepingly beautiful, enchantingly romantic motion pictures of recent years.
It works. It really, really works.
There are fleeting moments in which the rest of The Shape of Water doesn't quite live up to the absolute mastery of the slowly building relationship between Elisa and this amphibious man. Strickland's unrelenting racism, sexism and pro-America bravado is perfectly embodied by Michael Shannon, whose flesh here is, courtesy of said creature, quite literally rotting away in much the same way that racism, sexism and hyped up nationalism slowly eat away at the flesh of a nation.
It's clear, time and time again, that del Toro believes that love is truly the answer.
The Shape of Water is intimate yet universal, a film that will likely feel deeply personal, as it did with me, yet a film that feels like it envelopes everything that we are and everything that we can be. Even in its rather brief explicit moments, The Shape of Water is immersed in innocence and wonder.
As Elisa, it bears saying again, Sally Hawkins is nothing short of extraordinary. Long an actress who has been more interested in the craft of acting than the awards involved, Hawkins is one of those actresses you instantly know by face if not by name. From Oscar-winning short films (The Phone Call) to family films (Paddington) to a wide array of indie projects, Hawkins is one of contemporary cinema's most dependable actresses and one of the very few actresses who makes every film she works on a better film. I can think of a myriad of ways in which The Shape of Water could have gone wrong, yet Hawkins so completely transforms herself into Elisa that every unbelievable moment is completely and utterly believable.
The same is true for Doug Jones, an Indiana native and Bishop Chatard High School graduate who has become one of Hollywood's most go-to actors for creatures, beasts and transformative characterizations. He takes a creature that looks and feels like he could have popped out of the black lagoon and breathes life and spirit and love and tenderness into him. Once again, this role could have so easily gone wrong yet Jones does everything so incredibly right. As much as it's difficult to fathom the Academy recognizing Jones's work here, rest assured that Jones's work here is absolutely award-worthy.
The Shape of Water is, however, also a true ensemble piece with exceptional performances by Richard Jenkins as Giles, Michael Shannon as Strickland, Octavia Spencer as Zelda, and, in one of several fine performances this year, Michael Stuhlbarg as Hoffstetler. It takes truly gifted actors to make a real ensemble piece work, especially in a culture where "me first" can be the name of the game, yet these actors and actresses have locked themselves tightly together in bringing this story into a beautiful and wondrous light bathed in rainy blues and greens that are simultaneously warm and intimate, jarring and unsettled.
Alexandre Desplat's original score somehow weaves all of this together, a romantic fairytale and a Cold War adventure, into one cohesive tapestry of love in a world where love should not exist and hope and intimacy between the outcasts and misfits who so often dot the landscape of del Toro's cinematic endeavors. Dan Laustsen's lensing is almost unimaginably enchanting, the kind of camera work that leaves you with your mouth wide open and your heart in awe. Kudos must also be afforded Paul D. Austerberry's production design and Luis Sequiera's costuming.
Is The Shape of Water Guillermo del Toro's best film to date? Some, perhaps most, will still prefer Pan's Labyrinth but it's not unrealistic to lay claim to the idea that The Shape of Water is del Toro's most fully realized vision to date.
Like many, I try not to believe in love because life and time and circumstance have all worn me down to the point of not wanting to surrender to it one more time. But then, there's something magical that comes along, something like this masterpiece called The Shape of Water, and I immerse myself in its world and I surrender to its hope. Somehow, I rise to the surface feeling baptized again and cleansed and ready for this brave new world.
Guillermo del Toro has done it again.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic