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‘The Shape of Water’: A Perfect Modern Fairy Tale

The Shape of Water © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Quick Take: The Shape of Water is a phenomenal fairy tale with heroes, traitors, monsters, and magic. It’s about the virtues of love and friendship. It’s an utterly fantastical love story told with such irresistible emotion it’s not to be missed (yes I’m bossing you).

The Shape of Water is smooth paced, engrossing and builds to a satisfyingly beautiful conclusion without sacrificing an ounce of authentic character interaction or story development.

Put simply, The Shape of Water is a visual splendor of absolutely masterful storytelling.

Before this year ends, you definitely need to see The Shape of Water in theaters.

Grade: A+

The Details: There are no other filmmakers like Director Guillermo del Toro. His mind-palace is a welcoming habitat for monsters, fair maidens, the macabre, and magnificent flights of frightening fancy. His grasp and use of pivotal historical time periods, and their societally significant iconography, is uncanny. So when he says he’s to tell a love story, there’s no guessing what that means to him.

But if there’s anyone I trust to take the concept of “a beauty and a beast” falling in love and truly bring it to life as an R-rated, “Grimm” tale del Toro is certainly on my list. Particularly since I’ve never believed that film fairy tales need to be watered down, animated, or “nice” in order to be beautiful or compelling…

The Backdrop:

Set in Cold War 1962 America, The Shape of Water’s overall visual has a watercolor effect that brightens or muddies with the ebb and flow of the story unfolding on screen. It creates a look and cinematic feel very fitting for both the time period and the other-worldly nature of its mysterious tale. Every image sets a constantly captivating scene that keeps you fully engaged and connected to the characters and story.

The visuals are tied to a haunting score that adds a touch of the ethereal and poetic to every scene. French composer, Alexandre Desplat, created a soundtrack that helped turn this film into art-in-motion. There’s not a sour note or conflict between the lyrical choices or sound effects. Every moment feels perfectly timed and paced.

If you don’t end up adding this soundtrack to your buy list, then I’m pretty sure you’ve got a hole in your soul (ok…it could just mean you’re not that ‘in to’ soundtracks but I’m gonna judge you for that until the stars burn out).

The Story:

Elisa (Sally Hawkins) lives a solitary and isolating life. She has a few friends and spends most of her day at the secret government facility where she works on the janitorial staff.

She and her co-worker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer) learn of the existence of a creature that’s part of a classified experiment when they’re called to clean in a secret laboratory.

This discovery transforms their lives, and friendship, forever. I’m not going to tell you much more than that because this is a story is best seen and experienced to be understood.

At its core, The Shape of Water is Elisa’s story but the secondary players and their arcs are unique and essential to her journey in surprising, deeply disturbing, and occasionally violent ways.

The Players:

The ensemble brought together for Water bring this screenplay to life with unmatched skill and believability. This film could very easily have fallen flat. But these crew each dug into their roles pulling forth recognizable traits and nuanced to enliven these characters magnificently.

Elisa Esposito

Del Tor and Vanessa Taylor’s heroine is a fierce, loving, and wonderfully irreverent woman.

Elisa’s fascination with the Asset held in the secret laboratory sets off a change of events that reveals the true nature and motives of everyone around her. She challenges friends, confronts enemies, and makes allies of the most unlikely of people.

If Sally Hawkins isn’t Del Toro’s new muse, I hereby petition that he take it under serious advisement. Hawkin’s performance is riveting and flawless. Making a brilliant use of silence, sign language (Elisa is mute), and visual cues The Shape of Water Hawkins pulls you into Eliza’s world and guides us through her relationships an inviting innocence, humor, tenderness, and warmth.

And If you don’t know who Sally Hawkins is, then make it your business to see Maudie so you can see the depth and range of this woman’s talent and skill.

Zelda Fuller

Elisa’s relationship with Zelda and their dynamic is a deep friendship and sisterhood. More than anything else, Zelda is Elisa’s connection to her co-workers. Zelda alone treats Elisa with respect and courtesy. Her other co-workers hold her muteness against her and treat her as though it means she’s slow or stupid.

Elisa’s been ‘othered’ in a way that Zelda not only recognizes but lives herself as a black woman in 1962. This connection runs deeps and without Zelda, she’d be utterly cut off from positive human contact while at work.

She’s one of the few who’s taken time to know Elisa. Through their relationship, you see Elisa’s independence and stubbornness.  Their chats may appear one-sided, given Zelda does all the talking, but these two women know each other, care for each other and unconditionally support each other. You come to know Zelda best if you don’t shrug off her running commentary as just filling the silence.

There’s nothing stereotypical about the type of black woman Octavia Spencer chooses to portray in The Shape of Water, but she is highly recognizable. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m related to about 5 of her. Spencer’s Zelda is talkative, snarky, savvy, and proficient in blending into the background. Zelda is a perfect foil for Elisa.

Giles

Elisa’s relationship with her neighbor (and our disembodied narrator) Giles (Richard Jenkins) opens her world enough for you to realize that her solitary state doesn’t necessarily mean lonely. She has a life filled with laughter, light, and dancing – at least when she visits with Giles. They have a loving (if slightly superficial in the beginning) friendship built on common ground.

Richard Jenkins and Sally Hawkins in the film THE SHAPE OF WATER. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Again, each is an outsider – Giles has some issues – but in this case, its Elisa who is the nurturing partner in the relationship. She keeps Gile’s world from being cats and old Hollywood musicals. He’s a deeply lonely man and she keeps his world from being too small and ultimately empty. Their friendship is tested when Elisa turns to him for help.

Richard Jenkins brings Giles to life with such a light touch that it’s easy to overlook him until his part expands in the third act. But Jenkins simplistic gentleness makes him not only the best viewpoint to view the more fantastical aspects of Elisa’s relationship but highlights Giles’ core goodness and the care with which he personally must navigate the outside world.

Richard Strickland

The new experiment, brings with it a new head of security, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Stickland is the staggering arrogant, living embodiment of man circa 1962. He’s a brash, bull-headed, bigoted, blow-hard.

His power is not intangible and he revels in his ability to inflict his will on those around him. Strickland’s relationship to the creature in the secret lab is the direct antithesis of Elisa, making them adversaries. His overt disdain for anyone different it and attempts to bend people to his will makes them flat out enemies.

(From L-R) Michael Shannon, Sally Hawkins, and Octavia Spencer in the film THE SHAPE OF WATER. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Michael Shannon is a skilled craftsman when it comes to enriching a project with a character that disturbs the bejeezus out audiences. His turn as Strickland will not disappoint. He’s creepy, more than a touch rapey, and all the way menacing. Shannon is the connective thread between the reality of the 60s ideology and the water drenched world in which this fable plays out. All the more typical aspects of the 60s exist in his worldview and home life. But as things slip beyond his control, that image begins to ring false – ironically – as his behavior peals back that thin layer of civility to reveal what he hides beneath the surface in the day-to-day.

Each of these characters and their relationship to Elisa work to develop subtle (people who don’t want to see it will miss it) themes that resonate through the film without overwhelming from the main plotline. Without these additional perspectives and players and the layers they add to this tale, however, The Shape of Water would be a far less interesting film.

The entire ensemble that came together to make up the cast of The Shape of Water brought their A-game. But it has to be said, Doug Jones is incomparable as the Amphibian Creature at the center of this fable. Jones does more without saying a word or showing his face than actor working with those tools.

People need to more than bow down and acknowledge how he’s completely changed the game when it comes to bringing monsters and mythical creatures to life. He said he wanted to create something that would become immortal and damned if he didn’t do just that.

The Shape of Water opens nationwide: December 22, 2017. Yes, I already have a ticket to go back when it comes to San Diego on the 8th.

Overall Rating: 5 out of 5


I’m a film music junkie so I had to make one more pitch for this score…sue me.


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