Harare, Zimbabwe (News of the South)-For those few cinema scholars who speak of some motion pictures as “films,” and others as “movies,” Guuillermo del Toro’s glorious “The Shape of Water”” refuses to go tidily into either box.
A ravishing, eccentric auteur’s imagining, spilling artistry, empathy and sensuality from every open pore, it also offers more straight-up movie for your money than just about any Hollywood studio offering this year.
This decidedly adult fairytale, about a forlorn, mute cleaning lady and the uncanny merman who save each other’s lives in very different ways, careers wildly from mad-scientist B-movie to heart-thumping Cold War noir to ecstatic, wings-on-heels musical, keeping an unexpectedly classical love story afloat with every dizzy genre turn.
Lit from within by a heart-clutching silent star turn from Sally Hawkins lent dialogue by one of Alexandre Desplat’s most abundantly swirling scores, this is incontestably del Toro’s most rewarding, richly realized film — or movie, for that matter — since 2006’s “Pan’s Labyrinth.”
With encouragement from critics and awards voters, discerning viewers should make Fox Searchlight’s December release the season’s classiest date movie — for perhaps the greatest of “The Shaoe of Water’s” many surprises is how extravagantly romantic it is, driven throughout by an all-conquering belief in soulmates as lifelines.
This is del Toro’s second straight film to smuggle a swooning, lovestruck heart beneath pulpier genre clothing (“It’s really a Gothic romance” became something of a fan meme in response to 2015’s horror-styled “Crimson Peak”), though this time, there’s nothing arch about its romanticism: It’s as pure-hearted and simple a girl-meets-Amazonian-water-creature-who-might-just-be-a-god story as any ever made.
The film announces its fairytale intentions from the outset, via the florid, characteristically comforting Richard Jenkins voiceover that bookends proceedings: References are made to “the last days of a fair prince’s reign,” “the princess without voice” and “the monster who tried to end it all,” as the shabby contents of an ocean-flooded Baltimore apartment float in the blue like sea anemones.
It’s a dreamy image on which to kick off a story that never seems entirely of this world, even as we’re introduced to the mundane everyday routine of Elisa (Hawkins), voiceless and orphaned from infancy, who scrapes together a living as a cleaner in a top-secret government laboratory, where assorted shady experiments are conducted in a fevered spirit of anti-Russian paranoia. The year, of course, is 1962.
Elisa is lonely, but she’s not alone; indeed, loneliness is a condition common to most of the film’s characters, from her ceaselessly chatty workplace pal and protector Zelda (an irresistible Octavia Spencer), who carps despairingly about her unresponsive husband, or her avuncular neighbor Giles (Jenkins), a repressed gay illustrator who can’t find an outlet for either his work or his persecuted affections.
No one, however, is more desperately isolated than our nameless creature of the deep, dragged from South America to a murky tank at the lab by scientists convinced his supernatural capabilities can give America an edge in the space race. (If you’re wondering why, the film has no answer: Cold War bureaucrats are not presented here as the epitome of rationality.)
Yet when Elisa encounters him through the glass on her cleaning rounds, she sees not a scaled, finned, algae-colored beast, but a kindred spirit, one who shares not just her silence, but her misfit perspective, her scars of abuse and her ebullient love of Benny Goodman records.
Music is the chief conduit of feeling throughout “The Shape of Water,” whether in the form of Desplat’s ornate, orchestral jazz compositions, or crackling vintage cuts from the screen musicals Elisa and Giles consume together. Harry Warren and Mack Gordon’s wistful “You’ll Never Know” may have won an Oscar in 1943 for the lightweight Alice Faye musical “Hello, Frisco Hello” — briefly glimpsed on a boxy TV screen — but del Toro’s film has just given it a new, definitive cinematic context, as the recurring leitmotif for Elisa’s inner torment.
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