- Charles Ealy Special to the American-Statesman
Water takes on the shape of whatever holds it, and it can be gentle as well as powerful, just like love, Guillermo del Toro says. That’s what he’s trying to illustrate with his beautifully crafted new movie, “The Shape of Water.”
For the mute cleaning lady Elisa (Sally Hawkins), love takes the shape of a mystery-shrouded Amphibian Man (Doug Jones), who is being held in captivity in a government lab where she works in the early 1960s.
The government, led by Cold Warrior Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), thinks the Amphibian Man might help in the battle with the Soviet Union. Strickland captured the creature in the Amazon, where he was worshipped as a god, and U.S. scientists have reason to believe that he is the last of his species. He has an intriguing lung structure that lets him live on land as well as water, and that’s viewed as being a possible help in the space race with the Soviets.
The Amphibian Man seems to be able to read a person’s psyche and reflect those feelings back. So he senses Strickland’s anger and hostility and reflects those feelings.
He feels something quite different when he meets Elisa one night during her cleaning rounds with her best friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Elisa sees a deep loneliness in the Amphibian Man, and he sees the same in her.
Elisa lives alone in an apartment building, where her other best friend is Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay artist who’s just as lonely and tries to survive by doing artwork for advertising firms. He and Elisa love to sit on the couch and watch movie musicals. And although Elisa can’t speak, she hears just fine and practices dance moves with Giles.
When Elisa learns that the government is planning to kill the Amphibian Man, she concocts a plan with Zelda and Giles to save the creature and take him back to her apartment.
Yes, that’s right. This is a movie of interspecies love. The two leading characters, the Amphibian Man and Elisa, have no dialogue. They communicate with their eyes, their hearts, and reflect each other’s psyches. And for del Toro, that’s definitely love.
And, yes, the people who are trying to defy the U.S. government and steal one of its secrets are two cleaning ladies and a gay artist.
Del Toro is an imaginative storyteller, and this is a great fairy tale — as well as a subversive inversion of the monster movie. If you have a streak of rebellion in you, you’ll love it.
The visual effects are amazing, and the Amphibian Man’s suit that Jones inhabits is a marvel, iridescent and flexible and sexual. But what’s more marvelous is the silent expressiveness of Hawkins, who is sure to get an Oscar nomination for her role as Elisa.
Most moviegoers and critics consider “Pan’s Labyrinth” to be del Toro’s masterpiece. They’ll have to reconsider after seeing “The Shape of Water.”