The Shape of Water
Photo of Doug Jones in the film The Shape of Water.

Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Written by: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor, story by Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Olivia Spencer
Screened at: Review 2, NYC, 11/21/17
Opens: December 1, 2017 in NY. December 8, 2017 in LA.

Given the appalling movement toward the far right by Republicans in power, their grim determination to give the bulk of tax cuts to the rich, a vulgarization that has led neo-Nazis to consider the President their man, it’s good to know decent people are resisting the coarsening of our democratic standards. We can have moments of escape from a bleak reality via stories and movies of imagination and beauty. Adults can escape not through kiddie fairy tales like “Pinocchio” (however that character’s demeanor is mirrored in the White House), not through Marvel comics, which is a grand outlet for teens and millennials. We mean by an adult fairy tale. That means “The Shape of Water,” the most fanciful film to come our way this year.

Credit Guillermo del Toro, the Guadalajara-born director and co-writer, whose poetry comes across in features like “Pan’s Labyrinth” (a stepdaughter of a sadistic army officer in Franco’s Spain) and “Cronos” (a device that could grant eternal life has severe side effects). You know what to expect when you see a del Toro movie). “The Shape of Water,” an adaptation of the director’s story (available soon from Amazon), features Sally Hawkins, who appeared as well this year in “Maudie,” as a mute but hearing individual whose physical handicap has led her to the misfortune of loneliness.

The movie is marked by perhaps the best aquatic shots you will see on the screen in 2017 of a huge but lovable creature about nine feet tall, similarly lonely, isolated, penned inside a glass body of water. The events take place in 1962, during a period of Cold War paranoia, the United States determined to beat the Soviet Union into outer space. The creature (played by Doug Jones), dredged up in South America by government agent Strickland (Michael Shannon), is regularly given strong electric shots by the cruel agent to keep it in line, or simply for the amusement of the agent.

Loneliness casts its shadow over Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay man who like Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and like the creature, is an outsider. He lives in a dilapidated Baltimore apartment. He had been a prominent advertising illustrator ousted from his job by scandal. He attempts a pass at a counter-person at the local diner (Morgan Kelly), whom he sees when feeding his addiction to pies of all flavors. Elisa, who lives downstairs, is his only friend, and as for Elisa, she can count on the company of Giles and also Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a co-worker-cleaner in a large government plant. Punching up the plot, Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) is on hand as a marine biologist assigned to study the creature’s physiognomy for use in the space race against the Soviet Union.

Like the Frankenstein monster, the amphibious creature becomes friendly with those who seek to befriend him. He reveals himself as a male in one of the most beautifully photographed scene of loving sex, in this case with a nude Elisa. Before that point, Elisa forms a bond slowly, introducing at first a hard-boiled egg which is consumed after the creature tests the waters, then moves into a more spiritual phase when Elisa plays music on a portable phonograph.

“The Shape of Water” is a robust tale of love, one that redeems Elisa who until that point has had no-one but a pair of platonic friends, and takes aim at the forces of bigotry, hatred, and fear of what or who is different from what many of us consider to be normal. The war between good and evil is black-and-white, Strickland as almost pure evil and Elisa, Giles and Zelda are almost saintly—despite or perhaps because of their near poverty.

Rated R. 123 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – A-
Technical – A
Overall – B+

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The Shape of Water
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By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

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