Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water is determined to link itself to the song “You’ll Never Know” composed by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon. The film features a clip of Alice Faye’s performance of the song in Hello, Frisco, Hello. Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito’s only spoken lines in the entire movie are her singing the song near the end of the film. While “You’ll Never Know” is a lovely, yet melancholy song, it isn’t the song that captures how The Shape of Water feels. That song is “La Javanaise” by Madeleine Peyroux.
Also appearing on the film’s soundtrack, “La Javanaise” is such a lovely and sweet song like The Shape of Water is a lovely and sweet romantic movie. Madame Peyroux’s beautiful voice carried by simple strings is so wonderfully saccharine. It is in similarly saccharine moments that The Shape of Water shines. There is an overarching plot in The Shape of Water, but its grandest moments are in vignettes. Elisa and Giles (the superb Richard Jenkins) tap dancing along to Coney Island on the couch. Sneaking away to spend her dinner period with the amphibian man to teach him sign language and about music. Elisa’s impassioned plea for Giles’ help to save him. An embrace shared between the amphibian man and her after the bathroom Elisa filled to share with him is de-flooded. All of these moments ranging from tender to desperately heartfelt are The Shape of Water at its absolute best.
If you haven’t heard anything about The Shape of Water up until now. You might be mildly confused how the film is a romance yet features an amphibian humanoid as a co-star. The plot does require some explaining. That is basically it though. The Shape of Water is a love story between mute custodian for a government agency Elisa Esposito and a South American amphibian person.
Now that everyone is all caught up. The “asset,” as the amphibian man is called by his government captors, is brought to this agency to be examined to gain a leg up in the space race between Russia and the U.S.A. What starts as, what I assume, no more than curiosity grows into a mutual fondness between Elisa and the asset over the course of these vignettes. When it comes to her attention that the object of her affection is scheduled to be sacrificed for examination she devises a plot to break him free. With the help of the creature’s primary scientific investigator and Russian spy Dr. Hofstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) she succeeds in moving him to her rather-nice-for-a-janitor’s-wages apartment. There their love truly begins to bloom.
It isn’t only Elisa’s apartment that makes quite the set piece. The laboratory where the asset is held is both mysterious and ominous. The cinema that Elisa and Giles live above seems like a beautiful place to catch a movie. The distasteful pie shop and equally distasteful owner wouldn’t feel out of place in a Rockwell painting. No offense to Mr. Rockwell. The cadillac dealership Mr. Strickland purchases his car places the spotlight on how well Jeffrey A. Melvin and Shane Vieau decorated their 1960s Baltimore. Equal praise much be give to Luis Sequeira for dressing it.
A lot of praise has been given to The Shape of Water so far. All of it deserved. If I had to choose one fault, it would be that Nick Searcy as General Hoyt doesn’t wow as much as his castmates. Which is no knock against Mr. Searcy. He put in a perfectly serviceable performance. However, every other member of the cast put on a tremendous one. Sally Hawkins’ ability to conjure the kind of raw emotion she does through physical action alone is shocking. Michael Stuhlbarg switching from American patriot Robert Hoffstetler to Russian spy Dimitri is just as a much of a marvel to watch. I would go see an entire movie of only Octavia Spencer complaining about her marriage as Zelda Delilah Fuller. Richard Jenkins is a joy in his every appearance on screen. Michael Shannon perfectly encapsulates the dated masculinity of the 1950s and be a right asshole. Even farther down the casting list is great performance after great performance. If Dan Lett was on screen as “Cadillac salesman” for four minutes instead of three, I would have bought a car.
Of course, if praise is deserved by everyone who worked on The Shape of Water, then it is absolutely deserved by the writer and director of the movie, Guillermo Del Toro. How he managed to get the kind of magic out of his cast and crew, is an amazing and quite a necessary feat. The Shape of Water with one foot planted firmly in classic Hollywood could have easily felt like a relic. It instead feels like a love letter. A modern re-imagining of a story that everyone grew up with. It is also a modern re-imagining that I highly recommend.
All images taken from the Shape of Water twitter account. You can find most of my writing here on TAY. For my day-to-day ramblings, those are at my twitter, @J_Plays_Game5.