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Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018 12:04 am

Del Toro’s Water an instant classic


On paper, it sounds ridiculous. Then again, most parables do, and Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is just that: a poignant, powerful fairy tale for our times that speaks to universal concerns – the alienation of the unique, the dangerous power spawned from needless paranoia, and the importance of acceptance in a world accustomed to intolerance. That it involves a love story between a gill man and a poor, mute cleaning lady is beside the point. Beneath this Beauty and the Beast conceit is a vital message that speaks to social concerns we are facing today as well as during the film’s setting, the early 1960s.

Elisa (a luminous Sally Hawkins) lives a modest, quiet life. Unable to speak, she lives in a run-down apartment above a classic movie theater, has a devoted out-of-work artist neighbor named Giles (Richard Jenkins), and works at a nearby government facility where all sorts of mysterious goings-on occur. Her best friend there, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), tries to keep her ever-curious co-worker on point, but something in one of the rooms they clean gets the best of Elisa one day. She discovers a huge tank containing an odd creature, Amphibian Man (Doug Jones), who she immediately feels an inexplicable kinship with. It becomes evident that the powers-that-be – malevolent, government paranoia personified by agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) – have nothing but no-good planned for their find, as they are eager to dissect and study this creature, reasoning that its unique respiratory abilities may hold the secret to helping man breathe in space. This plan moves forward despite a plea for a more humane approach from Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg).

The film kicks into high gear when Elisa decides to take and hide the gill man in her apartment until the tide rises and he can be set free. Enlisting the aid of her friends Zelda, Giles (who happens to be gay) and Hoffstetler (who happens to have a secret of his own), this band of outsiders does their best to save the most alien among them. Del Toro’s message is obvious but no less powerful as these marginalized outsiders come together to fight the intolerance that faces them, a message that will hit home with the many groups contending with bigotry and hate today.

In the hands of production designer Paul Austerberry and cinematographer Dan Laustsen, Water is one of the most visually sumptuous films of the year. Urban squalor never looked so good as the scrapped walls, worn floors and mottled paint of Elisa’s apartment seem vibrant from use, while various shades of green are used throughout the film to echo the lush home the gill man has been torn from. The art deco-industrial design of the government lab is reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, while the use of water throughout, particularly when our heroine’s home is submerged in it, takes on a magical, luminous quality. The movie is a wonder to behold, one begging to be analyzed so that viewers can uncover its many delights.

In a sense, each film that del Toro has made has been a dry run for this production; however, all of the cards have seemingly fallen into place for him here, from the wonderful script he co-wrote with Vanessa Taylor, to the perfect cast and astounding workmanship that has brought this vision to life. The Shape of Water is an instant classic, a brilliant and beautiful telling of a tale we seem doomed to repeat, as so many of us still resist it’s vital, lovely message.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

The Shape of Water
will open soon in Springfield. For a review of Molly’s Game,
go to the Cinemascoping blog at
http://illinoistimes.com.

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