If you think the book was closed long ago on fairy tales, that they've all been written and read, and that the genre is further rendered obsolete by the brutal, anti-intellectual sentiment now rearing its ugly head in America, then you need to see "The Shape of Water."
Director Guillermo del Toro's beautifully conceived, written and acted fantasy, at once cynical, imaginative and wistfully altruistic, enchantingly draws us into its dissection of our existence, telling its classical good vs. evil tale with a reverence for the truth we humans require in order to flourish.
Del Toro touts the inherent worth and sanctity of the individual in the unlikely personage of Sally Hawkins' Elisa Esposito, on first blush a lowly janitor working in a secret government lab, circa 1962. The Cold War looms, rampant racism hasn't yet been at least tempered by the Civil Rights Act, and Elisa, though normal in every way except that she is mute, is treated like a second-class citizen. Notable exceptions are Giles (Richard Jenkins), the struggling artist/pal who lives next door to Elisa's apartment above a failed movie house, and Zelda, her kindly co-worker.
It behooves not to tell too much of the story, even though the plot itself is simple and straightforward. Writer-director del Toro's ability to beautifully weave surprise and nuance into the most obvious divulgences imbues its numerous moral maxims with refreshed veracity, telling anew why they are vital to our being. Full of essences, the film places friendship at center stage.
Part Runyonesque, part reminiscent of Steinbeck's make-do citizens of "Cannery Row," companionship knows no economic prejudice in the ragtag digs aforementioned.
Elisa acknowledges the creative worth of Giles' thus far unheralded art works and he, helped by the sign language he has learned, recognizes the intelligent and dreamy, complete person who lives behind the wall of ignorance others have built around her. She has a strict routine, methodically detailed: the alarm clock, the shower, the hard-boiled egg, and late to punch in everyday were it not for the compassionate intervention of Zelda, played by Octavia Spencer.
Expect things to change drastically following Elisa's big discovery.
In the facility where guv'mint operatives ply their scientific research and skullduggery, barely hidden behind closed doors they hold captive what the military types are calling "The Asset."
His caretaker, but more accurately, his chief tormenter, the cloak-and-dagger agent who wrestled him from his natural habitat in some exotic body of water, hates him, for no reason other than that he doesn't understand him. Played by Michael Shannon, the captor is Richard Strickland, an odious bigot, the Ugly American personified. He is the villain you love to hate.
Call The Asset what you will. In the credits, he's Amphibian Man. Makeup-wise, whether costume, part animatronics, or computer magic, he's certainly more convincingly imagined than "Creature from the Black Lagoon" (1954). And though any attempt to make a reverse analogy between this movie and "Mr. Peabody and The Mermaid" (1948) would be a stretch, I nonetheless am OK with the term, merman. But leave it to Elisa, who certainly knows what it's like to be fettered, misunderstood and cheated of her identity, to find the soul behind the scales.
I fear that referring to del Toro's splendiferous tour de force as a beauty and the beast derivative might be a giveaway, so I won't. Oops. Oh well, it's an oversimplification for a movie that certainly deserves its very own phylum. Suffice it to note that after discovering the amphibian and being revolted by the inhumane treatment he was receiving at the sadistic hands of Strickland, Elisa swings into derring-do mode. Action scenes follow, hearts pound and we edge toward the front of our seats.
Set to the backdrop of wonderfully fanciful sets, whether it's the dungeon-like fortress or Giles and Elisa's poetically infused digs above the oddly empty theater, it's the job of the movie's dreaminess to battle its antithetical hyperreality. Plus, there's a third variable: the scientist, Dr. Hoffstetler, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, who also becomes aware of no-goodnik Strickland's unquenchable hatred of black people, women, and now, this phenomenon. Is it anxiety over the unknown, an adult version of fear of the dark, which fosters reactionaryism? Are they just big babies?
As this critique is being written in December 2017, with plenty of Strickland-like Philistines clamoring at the gate of our democracy, it bears noting that film criticism can't help but also be social criticism if it is to be at all valid. Hence, as "The Shape of Water" details the trials and tribulations of amphibians and those who would protect them from humankind's worst instincts, we recognize the metaphors — the examples of unwarranted malice and prejudice, with Hawkins' Elisa elegantly epitomizing the righteous indignation it takes to change the shape of things.
"The Shape of Water," rated R, is a Fox Searchlight Pictures release directed by Guillermo del Toro and stars Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins and Michael Shannon. Running time: 123 minutes
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