THE SHAPE OF WATER — review by Cate Marquis

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Magical, evocative and haunting, THE SHAPE OF WATER blends Cold War thriller, fairy tale and monster movie genres in director Guillermo Del Toro’s best film since PAN’S LABYRINTH, as well as one of the year’s best. Continue reading…

In this beautiful fantasy, Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, a shy woman who works as a cleaning woman at a hidden military research facility during the Cold War. Elisa is mute but not deaf, and lives a lonely life of unchanging routine, on the margins of the stratified Cold War society. Her best friend is her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and Elisa rents space in an apartment above an old movie theater from platonic friend Giles (Richard Jenkins), another marginalized person. Elisa’s quiet routine is changed forever by the arrival of ambitious, harsh military operative Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) and a mysterious creature in a water tank.

Doug Jones plays the man-like amphibian, in an elaborate costume and makeup only slightly enhanced by CGI. Fans of old monster movies will instantly note that this watery creature has a striking resemblance to another watery movie monster, the one in CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, which is no accident. Rounding out the cast are Michael Stuhlbarg as a scientist who is uneasy about Strickland’s plans to weaponize the creature, or worse.

The story blends monster movie with fairy tale, specifically Beauty and the Beast, with its Cold War thriller and underdog striking back. Actually, the whole cast is wonderful. Sally Hawkins is amazing in the lead role, creating an appealing and mysterious character we fall in love with, all without speaking a word. Enhancing her performance is the magical world director Guillermo Del Toro builds around her. THE SHAPE OF WATER is a visual delight, often shot in a slightly greenish, slanting-light style that suggests a watery world even above the surface. In one scene, the soft light of rosy dawn lights the face of Hawkins as Eliza rides the bus to work in the morning.

The film draws on a number of Cold War era monster movies, but also evokes the stifling conformity and judgmental tone of the era. THE SHAPE OF WATER is a magical film, a thought-provoking twist on the monster genre, with beautiful moody photography, fine ensemble acting and brilliant direction

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Cate Marquis

Cate Marquis is a film critic and historian based in the St. Louis, Missouri area. Marquis reviews film for the St. Louis Jewish Light weekly newspaper and Playback: stl website, as well as other publications. The daughter of artist Paul Marquis, she was introduced to classic and silent films by her father, as well as art and theater. Besides reviewing films, she lectures on film history, particularly the silent film era, has served on the board of the Meramec Classic Film Festival and is a long-time collaborator with the St. Louis International Film Festival, serving on various juries.