The queerest film of 2017 may well be “The Shape of Water.”
Under the steady hand of Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro, the movie is a magical celebration of resistance and a lyrical adult fairy tale of love and loss and triumph told with a sublime sense of visual artistry, a sensitive ear for mythic storytelling, an assured sense of cinematic rhythm and just a touch of surreal fantasy. It’s playing now in Washington.
Set in Baltimore in 1962, “The Shape of Water” centers on Elisa Esposito (the amazing Sally Hawkins). Elisa is mute, so she communicates through sign language and occasionally dance. Her best friend is her next-door neighbor Giles (the superb Richard Jenkins), a gay man whose work as an illustrator at an ad agency is being threatened by the increasing popularity of photography.
Elisa and her friend Zelda Fuller (a delightful Octavia Spencer) work as cleaners at a government research lab. She discovers that a gentle creature (Del Toro regular Doug Jones) is being studied and tortured at the facility. With the help of her friends, she develops a plot to free the “Amphibian Man.” They’re aided by Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg as a scientist with a secret) in their struggle against Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the twisted government agent who has captured the creature and wants to kill him.
Del Toro’s splendid movie is a brilliant and timely reworking of the paranoid monster movies of the Cold War era (most notably “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”), but he and his ingenious collaborators draw from a variety of cinematic sources.
For example, the charming score by Alexandre Desplat smoothly blends period pop music with the lilting sounds of Parisian accordions. The stunning cinematography by Dan Laustsen references television and cinematic culture throughout. The decrepit cinema beneath Eliza and Giles’ apartment is showing the Biblical epic “The Book of Ruth” while the televisions in every living room feature guest performances from the likes of Mr. Ed, Betty Grable, Alice Faye, Carmen Miranda and Dobie Gillis.
Laustsen also has a sensual feel for the power of water (both literal and metaphorical). He captures water in a multitude of forms, from the mops and buckets that Elisa and Zelda use to clean the facility to the buckets catching the rainwater falling through the cracks in Elisa’s roof, from Elisa’s bathtub to the tanks the creature is kept in, from the glass of water that Strickland spills to the boiling water cooking the eggs Elisa eats every day.
He and Del Toro also have a wonderful facility for seamlessly blending realistic period detail with echoes of cinematic history and the iconography of ancient mythologies.
The acting is outstanding throughout. Hawkins is delightfully winsome as Elisa. She is elegant yet down-to-earth, eloquent in her gestures, heart-breaking in her initial loneliness and passionate in her defense of the Amphibian Man. Spencer is both funny and deeply-moving in her comic monologues about her husband, her fierce defense of Elisa, and the deep compassion she feels for her friend while enduring her own oppression.
Jenkins gives a finely detailed performance as the closeted Giles, going from the timid fop who surprises Elisa by showing up in a new toupee to the fierce fighter who helps the creature break free. He is, perhaps, at his finest in the stirring scene where he learns that the young man he has a crush on is both racist and homophobic. Jones is amazing as the creature, offering a fascinating physical performance and wordlessly conjuring up a world of feelings.
Shannon and Stuhlbarg are well-matched adversaries. Shannon is increasingly creepy as the increasingly unhinged government agent; Stuhlbarg brings a fascinating decency to a deeply conflicted character.
Del Toro (who wrote the excellent script with Vanessa Taylor) infuses the film with his passion for fighting social injustice. He creates sensitive portraits of these fighters. He depicts the prejudice they endure with clarity and penetrating insight, yet he focuses on their strength and resilience.
For all audiences but especially gay viewers, “The Shape of Water” is a must-see movie, and a movie that must be seen on the big screen. In this timely and timeless monster story, Del Toro and his talented cast and crew have created a magnificent movie that celebrates the things that make us most human: creativity, caring, sympathy, resisting conformity and celebrating the oddballs and standing up for each other against the bullies.