Review: ‘The Shape of Water’ is a mythical antidote for modern times

Nominated for 13 Academy Awards, the latest fantasy from the director of "The Devil’s Backbone" and "Pan’s Labyrinth" is now playing at Columbia’s Ragtag Cinema.

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In the midst of the Cold War in 1962, before John F. Kennedy’s death and Vietnam disillusionment kicked in, America still dreamed of the future. It was a time of invention, modernization and, of course, the space race. This era may come to mind when recalling a great moment in the United States’ history.

It is during this time that Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) is in charge of a secret government laboratory in Baltimore. He drives a Cadillac home after work to a suburban neighborhood, where he is greeted by his wife, two children and a plate of Jell-O. A superior general has tasked him with the vivisection of a creature that has been called an Amazonian river god. There is also a Soviet spy (Michael Stuhlbarg) disguised as a scientist with moral conflicts concerning the creature’s treatment.

This story could have been a government operative thriller; it could have been a heist involving Russian spies, too. Both would make good movies, but it focuses instead on the romance of a mute cleaning lady who falls in love with the beast. At work, Elisa (Sally Hawkins) mops floors with her African-American coworker and friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who doubles as her interpreter. She returns to an apartment above a movie theatre, where she watches classical musicals with her gay neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), a struggling illustrator. Life is not as great for these characters as suggested by the neon colors in a pie shop around the corner, but they demonstrate how love transcends color and sexuality.

To be clear, Elisa is not a mousy janitor with an awkward crush on a lizard. She has a full-fledged sexual identity from the very beginning scenes of director Guillermo Del Toro’s fairy tale tapestry. The film is somewhere at the corner of Creature from the Black Lagoon and Beauty and the Beast. Hawkins has a charming screen presence to match the strong-willed yet silent intricacies she has imbued in Elisa. She and Doug Jones as the human-like amphibian build a believable romance that defies language.

A black and white dream sequence featuring a musical number and sweeping camera movement is the highlight of the affair, while the rest of the film is given a watercolor look of tinted greens and blues. Del Toro got the most utility out of his production budget by using his own lighting techniques to mimic the effects of underwater filmmaking. With a sonic representation of water provided by Alexandre Desplat and cinematography by Dan Laustsen, the level of craft on display is unmatched by nearly any movie from 2017 down to the production design, costumes and editing.

When the characters find themselves going to extreme lengths to safeguard the majestic asset’s fate, The Shape of Water becomes a metaphor for the facelessness of love. It is about powerful men who try and fail to apply a limiting definition to that love by bargaining with gods more complex than they could ever imagine. It is about people whose devotion to each other inspires them to take a risk for the common good no matter how troubling their circumstances. Water has no shape, like love, and that is what makes this film a mythical antidote for modern times.

Edited by Claire Colby | ccolby@themaneater.com

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