I’ve said it before, and I will shout it from the top row in the largest movie house. THE SHAPE OF WATER, which momentarily will be coming to theaters, is not just one of the very best films of the year. It is one of the very best films of any year. There is so much to say about this extraordinary film. On one level, it is a fairy tale, set in Baltimore in 1962. Its central character is Eliza, a solitary young woman who is mute, and who is superbly played by Sally Hawkins. Eliza toils as a cleaning woman in a mysterious, high-security scientific laboratory where strange, indescribable events are occurring.
Not much more need be said about what happens in THE SHAPE OF WATER, other than mentioning a few of its secondary characters. They include Eliza’s supportive co-worker, played by Octavia Spencer; a solitary, self-described “starving artist” who is Eliza’s friend, played by Richard Jenkins; a Soviet spy, played by Michael Stuhlbarg; and a patronizing, racist, sexist “security person,” played by the ever-resourceful Michael Shannon. Not to forget a strange, otherworldly creature, whose development is being charted within the facility.
As I watched THE SHAPE OF WATER, I kept asking myself: What is going on here? What is this film about? This took a while to figure, because it is so unusual, so different. But then, in an instant, it all blended together in the most original and memorable manner, and the result is a combination Cold War thriller, love story, 1950’s CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON-style sci-fi film, and homage to the legendary American screen musicals. The latter in particular is extra-special. For indeed, THE SHAPE OF WATER is crammed with references to older musical films and film imagery, everything from Bill Bojangles Robinson dancing with Shirley Temple to Alice Faye singing “You’ll Never Know.” And here, Guillermo del Toro, the film’s director and co-screenwriter, embraces these special, romantic celluloid images and sounds. At one point, there is an all-too-brief sequence that is sheer magic. In it, the screen turns to black-and-white and two of its characters go into a sweetly romantic dance.
These days, a plethora of films center on individuals of different races or religions who meet, and click, and become the loves of their lives. For indeed, doesn’t everyone deserve someone to love? But THE SHAPE OF WATER transcends the obvious, however well-intentioned. Refreshingly, it puts forth the idea that just because someone or something is different, is out of the ordinary, it does not mean that their connection is wrong, is somehow bad. Yet still, evil forces will get in their way, and the point in THE SHAPE OF WATER is that these forces must be confronted, must be fought. Maybe the good will win out. Maybe not. But the key here is to keep trying...
Rob Edelman has authored or edited several dozen books on film, television, and baseball. He has taught film history courses at several universities and his writing has appeared in many newspapers, magazines, and journals. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.
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