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‘The Shape of Water’ beautiful and bizarre

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It’s a rare thing for a filmmaker to be able to bring together diverse sensibilities in the service of furthering their own particular voice. Finding the balance between craftsmanship and commercialism is never an easy thing to do.

And when I say commercialism, I’m not necessarily referring to box office success (although that’s part of it). What I mean is the art of making commercial fare – a very different skill set than that used in the making of more indie-minded films.

Guillermo del Toro is as good at walking that line as any filmmaker in his generation. He’s probably the best we’ve seen since the heyday of Spielberg. And “The Shape of Water” is the culmination of that journey, precisely filling the Venn diagram overlap between those styles – equal parts “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Hellboy.”

It is a heartbreaking fairy tale by way of a B-movie, fueled by period paranoia and a deep affection for old-school monster movies. Del Toro is far and away the most gifted cinematic fabulist currently working in the mainstream; he’s at the height of his powers with this one.

In Baltimore at the height of the Cold War, a mute young woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins, “Maudie”) is living above a movie theater. She wakes up every day, checks in on her lonely artist neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins, “Kong: Skull Island”) and then gets on the bus to her graveyard shift janitorial job.

Said job is at a never-quite-defined government facility, one whose purpose is decidedly shadowy. Elisa and her workmate Zelda (Octavia Spencer, “Gifted”) spend their nights cleaning whatever needs cleaning and generally steering clear of specific goings-on.

It all changes when a new “asset” is brought to the facility by a quietly sinister operative named Strickland (Michael Shannon, “12 Strong”). Said asset is an aquatic humanoid creature pulled from a South American river; Strickland’s superiors believe it might hold the key to gaining some sort of tactical advantage over the Soviets. Lead scientist Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg, “The Post”) is enlisted to examine the creature and research its abilities.

One night soon after, Elisa is cleaning the lab when her curiosity leads to her interacting with the creature. It isn’t long before the two are developing an undeniably odd, but nevertheless genuine relationship. All in secret, of course – Elisa’s friends are understandably skeptical, while her employers have their own agendas.

But when it becomes clear that the creature’s very life is in danger – that it is on the verge of going from being imprisoned to being vivisected – Elisa decides to risk it all in an effort to save him. But there are some very powerful people on both sides of the Iron Curtain with their own ideas about what should happen – people to whom a lowly mute janitor is little more than an annoyance to be quietly ignored and/or eliminated.

At its core, “The Shape of Water” is a love story. It is high-minded romance by way of 1950s drive-in fare. It brings the touching underpinnings of classic monster movies to the surface, using those feelings as the narrative foundation. It captures and subverts the familiar tropes and beats of the films that inspired it, forming them into something altogether different. Del Toro and

As with anything del Toro does, “The Shape of Water” is visually stunning. There’s no one else possessed of anything remotely close to his aesthetic flair. Virtually every frame is striking; the look of the film is meticulously detailed and exquisitely composed. From the fantastical elements down to the period mundanity, it all looks utterly phenomenal.

It’s a marvelous performance by Hawkins. To bear the narrative weight of a movie like this without ever speaking a word is incredibly impressive; it’s a remarkable feat of performative excellence that not only does she not speak, you don’t miss the spoken word. She is simply spellbinding using nothing but looks and gestures.

The rest of the cast is incredible across the board. Spencer is wonderful here, giving a sharp and understated performance that fits beautifully; she’s one of the best there is at helping her fellow actors shine. Shannon is never better than when he’s let off the chain and allowed to unleash his full capacity for malevolent weirdness – and he really goes for it here. Creepy and charismatic is a tough trick to pull off, but he nails it. Jenkins is his typically excellent self here, giving the kind of nuanced performance that has become his hallmark. Stuhlbarg is on point as well; in any other company, this turn would be unforgettable, but his excellence is largely overshadowed by his castmates.

(Special plaudits go to Doug Jones, whose talent for bringing weird and strange characters to life through physicality remains wildly underrated. Breathing life into characters created via heavy prosthetics and the like is extremely difficult and no one does it as well as Jones.)

“The Shape of Water” is one of the most nominated films in the history of the Academy Awards, garnering 13 nods for this year’s ceremony – only three films have ever landed more. And those nominations are certainly warranted. Every aspect of this film is exceptional; del Toro is a nominee for both Direction and Original Screenplay, while Hawkins, Spencer and Jenkins all received acting nods. Best Cinematography, Best Score and a slew of technical noms – plus Best Picture, of course.

It’s an exquisite piece of filmmaking, with del Toro using the medium to transform tropes and create unique new narrative adventures filled with passion and grace. “The Shape of Water” is weird and beautiful and idiosyncratic and mesmerizing. Magnificent.

[5 out of 5]

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