Bring towels. You won't really get splashed but you might feel soaked.
Before I saw this I had a hint of what the reality-twisting writer/Director
Beneficio del Toro (and co-writer Vanessa Taylor) had in store for us in this,
his latest fable. I had three clues: (1) I saw "Pan's Labrynth" in 2006; (2)
I'd seen enough films with Sally Hawkins to be familiar with her tendency
toward playing women with mental and/or physical disablilities which she
overcomes in the last act. And (3), the newspaper ads for "The Shape of Water"
is a dead giveaway of how she'll do it this time. Poor woman sees a future
with another vulnerable creature to which she's all too ready to rescue,
relate to, and, well, what you'll see if you see it.
Clearly, this was going to be another case of pseudo-human character-bending
in a mix of reality and fantasy. Since it's not one of my favored genres, I
entered the theatre with misgivings and a feeling more of duty than
excitement. Throw in a bit of hope that the auteur will have found the key to
making blatant surrealism somehow cogent. My hopes were dashed, caught in an
"Pan's Labyrinth" may be a road map to del Toro's aesthetics of
dream-drama-making, as well as reliable story construction. There, Ofelia, a
young Spanish girl, avoids her new stepfather's demands by seeking the safety
of her private world which transforms into a surreal fairy tale in a forest
wherein she's dreamily led into the Labyrinth. There, she finds Faun, a strange
male creature with ram's horns who gives her three tasks to complete.
Here, del Toro is a little grimmer, squeezing Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins,
"Maudie"), a deaf-mute protag, into an odd role as a night janitor in a
top-secret government facility in Baltimore during the cold war of the 60's.
We'll note that her job functionality is made possible by giving her a chatty
co-worker who has the capacity to understand and translate sign language
while they are engaged in a running battle with villainous Richard Strickland
(Michael Shannon), their smug and spiky manager. (Do I sense that the choice
of Spencer was because she played one of the three very smart ladies in the
fine "Hidden Figures," hence her creds in any role are established?)
Elisa also has Giles (dependable, forlorn Richard Jenkins), as a kindred soul
with whom to share her world of loneliness. He's a man of middle age, an
artist, a closeted gay and her next door neighbor.
One night, while cleaning a high-security lab, boredom is turned into
excitement when doors fling open and an "asset" is brought in. When Elisa
surreptitiously manages to take a look, her whole world changes.
It all comes off as a story that the writers had much to struggle with in
order to stave off the strained logic of a mute janitor in a top-secret
research lab. Does having a companion to translate sign language make it any
more sensible? The repetition of a magical set of such devices and a ream of
coincidences does a story little good. But del Toro was clearly faced with
solving plausibility challenges that go with bringing an exo-world character
into what was, up to its arrival, a representation of reality, if a highly
questionable one. For me, this exo-world approach to metaphorical messaging
pretty much died with the tide.
The film does, however, have the right actress for the material.
~~ Jules Brenner