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The Shape of Water ~ A Capsule Movie Review

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The Shape of Water ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

A middle-aged woman named Elisa (played by Sally Hawkins) works in a government research facility where she cleans toilets and floors. She is lonely and alone, partly because she doesn’t speak; she is mute and communicates using sign language. She is not without friends, though. Her co-worker and friend of ten years is a funny and straight-talking woman named Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Another friend, and apparently her best friend, is a man named Giles (Richard Jenkins), an obviously gay, past-middle age, depressed, alcoholic commercial artist who was recently fired from his job for drinking too much. Elisa and Giles are next-door neighbors in a seedy apartment building over an old movie theatre, from which they hear perpetual movie dialogue. The place is Baltimore and the time is the early 1960s, when there existed an intense competition between the United States and Russia for domination of space.

The research facility where Elisa works has recently acquired from South America an amphibian man-beast that looks something like the creature from the 1954 movie Creature from the Black Lagoon, only more human-like and not as scary. The man-beast, of course, is lonely and sad because he has been taken away from his natural habitat to a faraway country and placed in a confining tank, awaiting…what? Elisa makes surreptitious visits to the tank where the man-beast is held, and she recognizes in him a fellow being in pain in a cruel, callous world. She gives him hard-boiled eggs and plays sentimental retro music for him, and the two of them develop a friendly rapport.

Most of the management of the research facility, with one notable exception, view the man-beast as a “thing” instead of a thinking, feeling being. The idea is to experiment with him to get a better understanding of how men might fare in space and thereby gain an advantage over the Russians in the space race. (I don’t see how this is possible, but never mind.) The one member of management who views the man-beast as a miracle, “a beautiful creature who can reason and who understands language,” is Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg, who played a dapper gangster in Boardwalk Empire and the understanding father in Call Me by Your Name). Dr. Hoffstetler is, in reality, a secret Soviet agent. He is working behind the scenes to get the man-beast to the Russians. Or is he? Wouldn’t the Russians be just as cruel as the Americans, and maybe more so?

When Elisa hears that the cruel, uncaring men plan to vivisect the man-beast (i.e., cut him into pieces to study him), she knows she must save him, any way she can. Dr. Hoffstetler, Zelda and Giles assist Elisa in stealing the man-beast from the research facility and hiding him in her apartment. The idea is to keep him hidden there until a rainy period in October when the water in the canal that connects to the sea (remember, this is Baltimore) is high enough to release him so he’ll be safe. It’s while the man-beast is in Elisa’s apartment that the two of them “fall in love.”

The Shape of Water is about two opposing forces in the world: the force for good (compassion, empathy, sensitivity, understanding) against the force for—if not exactly evil—then hard-assed reality, practicality, and insensitivity (the failure to recognize beauty and uniqueness). It’s a whimsical fantasy that requires a suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer. An isolated, unattractive, human woman with a physical defect falls in love with a man-beast from South America who may be a kind of god and tries to save him from the world. If reality is what you crave, then The Shape of Water is probably not for you.

Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp

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