The voice of Sally Hawkins is appealingly clear. Just last year she hummed and muttered her way through the overlooked indy Maude. So seeing this English actress shine in a film without saying a word is, to say the least, odd. It is true, though: The British actress doesn’t speak in The Shape of Water, a new offbeat, mysterious drama by Guillermo del Toro.
Hawkins plays Elisa, a mute — but not deaf — government worker who romances a captured, sub-human monster in a top-secret facility during the Cold War. I know it sounds weird. It is weird. But Hawkins will make it worth your trip to the movie theater.
After pondering this wonderful movie for weeks I have concluded Hawkins has to be brilliant. To elevate a script that is, at best, quirky and interesting into something extraordinary without uttering a word? That is brilliant.
Elisa is a quiet woman, living alone in a run-down city apartment. She is close to her neighbor, Giles, a lonely painter movingly played by the actor Richard Jenkins, who is once again so good he deserves a nomination for this role. Similarly, Elisa is attached to her fellow cleaning lady Zelda (the always excellent Octavia Spencer). These two kind souls seem to anchor her; they create intimacy and order in her silent life.
That order is disturbed when the top-secret government facility where she works under the malignant Richard Strickland (another dark role by Michael Shannon) welcomes a semi-human, vaguely Frankensteinian, amphibian creature without a name. Everyone is terrified of the muscular stranger-in-chains, channeling their fears into a deep need for his submission. Elisa, on the other hand, just sits and flirts at the edge of his basin. She gently feeds him boiled eggs. She charms him, he charms her, and a sort of Beauty and the Beast for adults blossoms as she tries to help the monster.
I’m no huge fan of del Toro, his monsters and dark fantasies. But this story is clever. We all love it when Belle — herself an outsider in a hostile world — falls for the beast no one even wants to look at. Del Toro smartly folds this conceit into a Cold War spy story with some very dark undertones.
Elisa, our mute Belle, has almost no one in her life aside from the neighbor and colleague. The monster literally has no one: he lives in chains under water, abused by men in suits who think he is worse than the communists they are battling. So they find solace in each other’s arms. They become each other’s person — or, at risk of sounding speciesist, creature. Either way: they become the one who does not judge the other. For a high-brow film from the much-admired del Toro it’s a somewhat sappy message. To me, it made the film sweet and light, easily digestible. I never thought it was great, but I did love it; the speedy joy-ride Baby Driver had the same effect, with its insane car chases and classic love story.
Hawkins is the silent star in The Shape of Water, but she surrounded by a group of talented actors. This has been a year of terrific ensembles anyway. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Post (with Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep) are just two examples. Del Toro had the good fortune, or perhaps the smart idea, to hire Robin D. Cook to cast this film. She recently worked on Room, the breakout for Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larson, and The Handmaid’s Tale, a TV show I do not enjoy but which has some very good acting.
So we have a fine script, an interesting idea, a good director, and an inspired casting director. Add Richard Jenkins and Sally Hawkins into the mix, and some Christmas-time magic pops up on the screen.
The Shape of Water is rated R. It opens Friday, December 8 across the country.