By Pat Mullen
VANCOUVER – Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro returns with another spectacular fairytale. The Shape of Water gives Beauty and the Beast a new twist, as del Toro crafts a sweetly speculative love story between misfits. The beauty is Elisa, played by Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine), a mute and lonely custodian at a high security government lab. The beast is an odd amphibian, played by Doug Jones, a Creature from the Black Lagoon-type discovery who is the subject of the lab’s top-secret experiment. Beauty tames the beast in this otherworldly Cold War-era romance. It’s a love story for the ages.
Elisa learns to communicate with the beast by observing him and treating him with respect, unlike the cartoonishly square government agent, Strickland (Michael Shannon), who guards and mistreats him. They bond over eggs and old music as Elisa sneakily takes her tank-side, and her affection for this scary but gentle creature inspires her to set him free. Cue a jailbreak aided by her best friend Giles (Richard Jenkins), co-worker Zelda (a scene-stealing Octavia Spencer, hilariously channeling the ghost of Thelma Ritter), and caring doctor Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg).
Hawkins is excellent in her mute performance, gliding through the film with joie de vivre. She brings a childlike sense of wonder to her character and uses expressive body language marvelously, often overplaying gestures to speak through playful pantomimes. Del Toro’s direction plays Elisa’s spirited ways like a musical, as The Shape of Water gives a lively step to the peculiar thrill of romance she feels for her non-human leading man.
The music by Alexandre Desplat envelops the film with Parisian wafts of passion while the cinematography by Dan Laustsen dances alongside Hawkins and offers dark canvases of theatrical lighting. Clever use of Toronto locations, notably the Elgin Theatre, creates an escapist fable that draws upon our love for tales of star-crossed lovers. The Shape of Water is a fairy tale for grownups, as del Toro conjures a fantastical world in which horror and romance swim side by side.Guillermo del Toro