‘The Shape of Water’ — ’50s-style creature feature transformed into modern-day allegory

The sea creature, played by Doug Jones, left, and Elisa, played by SallyHawkins, in "The Shape of Water." (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Less a movie than a conjuring, “The Shape of Water” plunges viewers into a mossy, aquamarine world of dreams and taboo desires, its contours as a wistful fable adjusted more than slightly for very real, present-day concerns.

As a creation of the groundbreaking filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, this fantastical allegory bears the director’s hallmarks — monsters and surrealistic environments, bloody body horror and meltingly tender romance.

“The Shape of Water” may not achieve the aesthetic and thematic heights of 2006’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which still stands as del Toro’s masterpiece. But it’s an endearing, even haunting film from one of cinema’s most inventive artists, who manages to bend even the hoariest B-movie tropes to fit his idiosyncratic, deeply humanistic imagination.

Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, who, at the beginning of the film, is described as “the princess without a voice.” As the action gets underway, we discover that she’s actually on a cleaning crew at a damp, cavernous research facility in Baltimore where, in Kennedy-era America, the U.S. government has brought in a mysterious humanoid amphibian from the Amazon, possessed of powers that may have implications for the space race and Cold War politics.

Elisa, it turns out, is mute, making her more highly attuned to what’s being communicated under the dank, vaguely sinister surface at the aquarium. She quickly makes a connection with the fish-man (portrayed in fully-gilled prosthetic regalia by Doug Jones), who likes the hard-boiled eggs she brings in from home. The relationship alarms the fish-man’s handler, an agent named Strickler, played with sneering menace by Michael Shannon.

Filmed in aqueous greens and blues, its period design dripping with kitschy nostalgia and retro-futurism, “The Shape of Water” takes its cues from Golden Age Hollywood, including musicals, Bible epics and 1950s creature features, as well as the sleekly optimistic advertising imagery of the early 1960s.

Elisa’s best friend and next-door neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), is a commercial artist working on a campaign for Jell-O, that shaky symbolic repository for the time period’s most uncertain hopes and anxieties.

But if the world that del Toro builds reflects his usual attention to surprise and detail, the characters who populate it too often feel rote, crammed into roles whose metaphorical meaning feels simplistic and bluntly at odds with the rest of the film’s subtlety.

Starting with Giles and Elisa’s work friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and continuing through Shannon’s depiction of masculinity at its most malevolent and toxic, the message of “The

Source:: East Bay – Entertainment

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