Sally Hawkins Michael Shannon Richard Jenkins
Doug Jones Michael Stuhlbarg Octavia Spencer Nick Searcy
The playful, loving nature of Sally Hawkins’ Elisa perfectly captures the nature of this film and Guillermo del Toro’s creativity and imagination. She’s a complex character—as is the plot—and continually surprises us with her thinking and actions. She is mute, but not deaf, and is one of the two housecleaners at a research facility, the other being Zelda (Spencer), who knows sign language and assumes a maternal stance toward her. Elisa’s neighbor, Giles (Jenkins), a rather fussy, inhibited man who doesn’t seem to know that she does not like key lime pie, and goes ahead and orders it for her, despite her protests. He knows sign language as well, and is able to express his appreciation to her for looking out for him.
The research facility is an odd one, with Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Stuhlberg) in charge, and he has invited Strickland (Shannon) to come to the lab to study a strange creature Strickland found in the Amazon Jungle. Elisa is immediately fascinated with “Amphibian Man”, and sneaks a peak at it as often as she dares. Then she gets bolder when she finds that he appreciates a boiled egg she has brought to him. She teaches him sign language, which he rapidly acquires, and they begin to communicate.
The story takes on more adventure and drama when we learn of the varying motivations among all parties to study the creature (Jones). Strickland, a speculator wants to make dough and please the five-star General Hoyt (Searcy); Hoffstetler, a scientist (and more, which we don’t find out until later) has interests beyond the scientific; and Elisa, a good-hearted maid with strong moral principles, simply wants to protect it.
Del Toro inserts quirky mannerisms for the characters and plot twists and turns to entertain us with while he is telling his story, which turns out to be a bit of a thriller. For instance, take Strickland—not minding that the women are cleaning the men’s room—he proceeds to wash his hands before he pees, and expounds on his thoughts about washing before or after relieving himself. Mystery is introduced when he leaves behind a trace of blood on the lavatory. Elisa loves movies and dancing, and proceeds to tap-dance along her way when she is alone. Giles makes odd pronouncements such as, “Corn Flakes were invented to keep people from masturbating.” Zelda has a demanding husband, who doesn’t seem to do much of anything, which she endures with patience; but she’s good-hearted like Elisa, so they make very fine friends.
All this is bound together with the flowing score of diverse but script-meaningful songs by the musically elite Alexandre Desplat and artistic camerawork of Dan Laustsen.
Del Toro likes to play with magic in his films, and he is like a magician himself in putting together in The Shape of Water all of the many elements of filmmaking to give us excitement, creativity, full-bodied characters, and visual displays that we can see as a true work of art.
Bravo! Guillermo del Toro!
Weird meanderings of a beautifully told story with an unexpected ending.