When I was eight my Dad let me stay up late one night to watch a movie with him. Playing on Fright Night Theater, out of Buffalo on the old WKBW network was King Kong (1933) which he loved and wanted to share with me. Sitting in the dark, the old black and white TV lighting the room with its image, wrapped in a blanket next to me father smelling of Old Spice, we together watched this classic. It was while watching that film I became aware of the magic of the movies.
While watching The Shape of Water, I flashed back to that night, thinking to myself, this is the reason movies were invented, to transport, to leave us in awe, to fill our hearts and souls with wonder. I first saw this film three months ago at TIFF and have yet to see a better film this year. Bold, often audaciously so, it is a monster movie that is a fantasy that is a Cold War thriller that is a love story, and incredibly it all works. In its own quiet and yet majestic way, it is a miracle of a film that left me floating out of the screening cinema as if buoyed by its sheer genius.
This the magic of movies we often here about but so rarely see. While watching the film you keep reminding yourself it should not work, yet it does, and it works with a beauty I have rarely seen on film before. And despite being essentially a monster movie, beauty is the right word for the film. More so than any recent film The Shape of Water explores the sheer beauty of humanity, the best of human beings when we choose to be such.
What is remarkable is that in exploring the very best of humanity, one of the characters is not human, yet is decidedly human. You might find yourself swooning from time to time throughout the picture, floating out of the cinema as though buoyed by water.
The success of the film is placed squarely on the shoulders of the astonishing Sally Hawkins, superb as Eliza, a mute janitor at a top secret government facility where an equally top secret asset has been brought for the scientists to study. Some sort of man like amphibian is chained into a tank, where it is relentlessly tortured by the government bad guy, portrayed with evil relish by Michael Shannon. Worshipped as a God in the Amazon, the creature is tortured and treated as a thing, not a fascinating living being. Eliza bonds with the creature, feeding it hard boiled eggs, playing it the music she loves, finding in this creature an understanding of her very soul she has not experienced with another human being. When she hears the scientists plan to kill and dissect it, she hatches a plan to break it out of the facility.
Aided by her friend, a lonely gay neighbour portrayed with wry sadness by the great Richard Jenkins, and her best friend, beautifully played by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer. Even one of the gentle scientists repulsed by destroying a creature thought to be a God lends his support.
In love with this strange merging of man, fish and reptile, Eliza takes him to her home where he is safe in her bathtub. At least for a while, because the maniac from the government is in hot pursuit.
A fairy tale for adults, the film never goes where you think it is going to go, and where it goes you will not believe, but what is truly remarkable is that it works. It dares to be bold, challenges the audience to accept something they have not ever seen before, and because it is so pure in its realization of the events, we believe it. Eliza has, with this creature, found her true soulmate, and accepts it.
Sally Hawkins is a revelation, giving one of the screens greatest performances that should make her the frontrunner for the Academy Award. Her big eyes take in all around, including the cruelty with which the creature is treated, but more his own soul, matched to hers. When he stands he towers over her, his webbed fingers pulling her naked body close to his. They become one, deeply in love, something that to her just feels right, but what is extraordinary is that it does feel right. In every way. Fearless of the nudity required of her, Hawkins givers herself over to it as well as the bolder scenes with the creature. Her performance is one of great courage, and she manages to be both light on her feet, yet fills the character with rich complexities. The actress is magnificent.
Richard Jenkins is superb as her gay neighbor, who takes care of her as she takes care of him. It is a lovely gentle, melancholy performance that beautifully balances and compliments Hawkins work. He cares enough for her to go along with her crazy plan, as does her best friend, portrayed with her usual wise ass charm by Octavia Spencer.
As the villain, the man who brought the creature back, Michael Shannon is quietly terrifying, partly because he fears what he does not understand, mostly because he believes violence and severe cruelty are the answers to everything.
With their relationship, Eliza and the creature make clear that love has no barriers, there is no need for hate or cruelty in their world. Del Toro has created a fairy tale for adults, a film of breathtaking beauty, filled with awe inspiring wonder, an absolute miracle of a film. When Georges Melies, the French visionary, began making his fantastical films in the silent era, in 1902 he made them to transport audiences into different worlds, to show them the impossible. He takes incredible chances within the film, he gives us scenes you think might not work, and then they do, and they do because we have invested in his lovely story and the superb actors in the roles.
An absolute masterpiece, one of the years very best films, an Oscar frontrunner.