The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Shape of Water

Creature features have a long history of sexual intimation. King Kong and The Creature from the Black Lagoon both had their central monsters targeting beautiful women. Those are just two examples. For a variety of reasons, few films have dared to go beyond subliminal hinting at sexual attraction between human and beast. Guillermo del Toro's latest, The Shape of Water, takes the concept to its next logical step. This adult fairy tale is perhaps the riskiest film of its maker's career, but those risks generally pay off.

The story is set in 1962. Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, a mute woman who lives with her friend Giles (Richard Jenkins), an older gay man who obsessively eats pie at a local diner because he has a crush on the counter boy. Elisa works as a housekeeper at a top secret government research facility, along with her good friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer). One day, some kind of weird aquatic creature (played by Hellboy actor Doug Jones) is brought in for containment. The agent in charge, Strickland (Michael Shannon), advises everyone to stay away from the deadly being. Elisa ends up forming a connection with it by showing tenderness during its time of captivity. What follows is a surprising combination of jailbreak thriller and erotic romance.

The Shape of Water draws an interesting parallel. Elisa indeed finds herself attracted to the creature. As her story plays out, a separate one does too, involving Giles and the guy at the diner. The early '60s setting is intentional, as it was a period where people didn't feel as safe in coming out about homosexuality as they do now. In both cases – one rooted in reality, the other in fantasy -- del Toro shows characters forming attractions that are seen by judgmental individuals as “wrong.” The film takes a firm stance against that mindset, arguing love has great meaning and that trying to quash sincere feelings of it fundamentally hurts our collective humanity.

Asking audiences to buy into a romance between Elisa and Amphibian Man (as he's billed) is one of the movie's biggest risks. The director pulls it off by taking strides to establish both characters as outsiders desperate for connection. By virtue of being mute, Elisa is in some respects cut off from those around her. Amphibian Man, on the other hand, isn't human, which disconnects him from the world in which he abruptly finds himself. One of the sweetest scenes in the film shows Elisa playing music for the creature, who has never heard it before. They bond significantly in that moment. The Shape of Water could easily have been absurd, had del Toro not pumped it so full of emotion.

Another risk is including a song-and-dance number. Yes, really. Does a dancing Amphibian Man look silly? Not at all, because the movie sets it up perfectly, establishing how Elisa introduces the creature to music and, more importantly, demonstrating what movies and music mean to her. When she fantasizes about being part of a big cinematic production number, it seems completely natural.

Sally Hawkins gets the role of a lifetime here. In films as diverse as Blue Jasmine and Paddington, she has established herself as a reliable actress with a knack for disappearing into character. Elisa gives her a tough challenge, which she's more than up to. Because Elisa doesn't speak, all the emotion has to be expressed facially and through body language. Even though she can't verbally explain any of it, Hawking makes us completely feel as though we know and understand this woman, her heartache, and the reasons why she is drawn to Amphibian Man.

Michael Shannon is also very good as the cruel, menacing government official who knows what's going on and doesn't like it. Special praise, however, must go to Doug Jones, who fulfills the other side of the Elisa/Amphibian Man romance. He doesn't get to speak either, and of course he's buried under mounds of prosthetic makeup. Nonetheless, he provides the creature with a soul, using movement to suggest intellect and sensitivity beyond what Strickland can recognize. Jones and Hawkins work well together, creating one of the most unexpectedly compelling screen romances of recent years.

The Shape of Water, like all Guillermo del Toro films, is exquisite to look at. Every shot is filled with little details that you want to absorb. If anything, the movie would have benefited from one or two more scenes examining the initial curiosity between Elisa and Amphibian Man, because – let's face it – falling for a lizard creature is a big leap. Making the idea as airtight as possible gives maximum strength to everything that comes after.

That minor nitpick aside, this is a visually spectacular fantasy romance that's leagues better than 95% of the conventional romances Hollywood typically cranks out these days.

( 1/2 out of four)

The Shape of Water is rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language. The running time is 2 hours and 3 minutes.

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