The Shape of Water review — Sally Hawkins gives the performance of a lifetime

The Shape of Water is a beautifully crafted story by master filmmaker Guierrmo Del Toro, but lacks the emotional depth to make it great.

Love is love, even if it’s between a human woman and an amphibian man. That’s the message that Guierrmo Del Toro seems to be trying to get across with his newest movie The Shape of Water, a modern fantasy romance during the height of the Cold War. Like his last film Crimson PeakThe Shape of Water is presented as a fairy tale and is stylistically told as such. There are even moments where it seems like the image on screen could be a page in a picture book. However, like a fairy tale, his delivery of this message is a bit on the nose. But that isn’t anything new for Del Toro.

In early 1960s Baltimore, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) lives a routine life. When she wakes she changes over the calendar, puts eggs on the stove to boil, makes her lunch for the day, and of course masturbates in the bath. You know, routine. However, Elisa isn’t exactly a normal woman. She is mute. But she doesn’t let that fact crush her spirit. She’s a lively woman who enjoys conversation with her neighbor Giles, an advertisement artist who has let go from his company because of some type of addiction that we don’t quite learn of. Elisa is also special because she works nights cleaning at the Occam Aerospace Research Center, a top-secret government facility that recently acquired an asset that they believe may be the key to besting Russia at the space race.

This asset is a mysterious creature that was found in the waters of South America. He is simply referred to as Amphibious Man (Doug Jones) in the credits, but that doesn’t quite cover what he is. What is clear is that Elisa is taken aback by him, especially when the head of the team researching the creature, Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), is injured by him. As time goes on, Elisa begins sneaking into the room that contains the creature to feed him hard-boiled eggs and play him music off her portable record player. Over time, the creature and Elisa begin to bond. She begins to see the humanity in him, as does Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg, he’s having a great year between this and Call Me By Your Name), who might have ulterior motives for the creature. As Strickland becomes more hostile towards the creature, Elisa decides to recruit the help of Giles and her friend and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spenceras charming as ever) to help her break him out of the facility.

Del Toro is one of the finest visual filmmakers working today and The Shape of Water is a perfect example of that. The movie is carefully designed to take place within the period, but also have a surreal quality to it with its costumes and sets splashed in a sea-foam green color tone. Del Toro knows how to heighten reality to fit the story he’s trying to tell by having every department fully committed to his vision. Credit also has to be given to cinematographer Dan Laustsen, who shot the film like a cold war movie, with a storybook flare.

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However, as engaging as the story is, I never felt truly immersed. Part of the problem with Crimson Peak was its general emotional coldness. None of the characters had strong arcs that you could become invested in. The same problem happens in The Shape of Water. There are glimpses of emotional undercurrents. Giles, a closeted gay man, has taken an interest in a waiter at a local diner and often drags Elisa along to see him. And while that storyline comes close to becoming an emotional arc, a pivotal scene is cut right before it really says anything and then the storyline is dropped.

Sally Hawkins, though, delivers a lot of heart to the movie. She’s an emotional powerhouse without speaking a single word. In one scene, she forces Giles to repeat everything he’s saying to ensure he’s understanding. And though Jenkins pretty much deadpans the translations, the pain in Hawkins’ face is enough to carry the emotional heft of the scene. Her relationship with the creature isn’t exactly built up or earned. It feels like it’s rushed for the sake of the plot. But again, Hawkins makes me believe that she truly has fallen for him. She’s sensational. The same goes for Jenkins. He portrays his character’s loneliness with incredible restraint and though the script doesn’t give him the chance to build much of an emotional arc, he adds a lot of depth.

And even though I was ultimately disappointed in my lack of emotional investment in the movie, Del Toro is a masterful storyteller. Elisa and Giles both bond over their love of old Hollywood musicals. And that imagery is often invoked with Giles and Elisa sitting on the couch mimicking the movie they’re watching on screen or when at one point Elisa imagines her and the creature performing a classic black-and-white musical number. Like all of his films, The Shape of Water has a quirky tone to everything, even when it drifts into the horrifying. That tone is also aided by Alexander Desplat’s playful score, which is certainly one of the most memorable elements of the film.

For a movie about a creature of the deep, The Shape of Water keeps everything surprisingly surface level. It feels like what you get on screen is all that you are given. Still, Guierrmo Del Toro is such a masterful filmmaker that he is able to make the story and visuals interesting enough to keep audiences in their seats. However, the movie left me cold with nothing to attach to. It is the visual feast that his past projects were, certainly. But the emotional heft is put on the shoulders of its cast. In particular, Sally Hawkins and Richard Jenkins, who both deserve Oscar nominations for their work. The Shape of Water is definitely worth a watch for its story and filmmaking prowess.

★★★½ out of 5