It could have been a usual story out of the oodles of romances rolling out of the Hollywood stockpile every year. What Guillermo del Torro did was to add his trademark perspicacity of fantasy to the clichéd theme of love and shape it into a winsome movie. He very adroitly used the boundlessness of love and propelled it beyond the barriers of speech and species in The Shape of Water.
Furthermore, the cinematography in intense shades of greens and browns by Dan Laustsen enhanced the circumstances, the many sentiments and the storyline based in the Cold War era. The result: a film that has become one of the top contenders on every awards shortlist this year.
The story revolves around the innocence, excitements and agony of a vulnerable woman marred by voicelessness. Elisa (Sally Hawkins), rendered mute after a childhood accident, lives in a dingy apartment atop a movie theatre. But the only theatricality in her lacklustre life is a choreographed routine that oscillates between high heels, eggs and interactions through sign language with her two friends - her lonely and aging gay neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins) who is an illustrator and her workmate, Zelda (Octavia Spencer) at the high security lab where they both work as helps.
Hawkins, through all the gestures and the sincerity in expressions, injects a noteworthy urgency into her role that rings loud and clear despite the vocal handicap of the character. Spencer is as lively as she was in The Help and exercises a strong grip over her character as the good-natured and gossipy Zelda.
When a highly classified creature is wheeled into the care of lab scientist Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) under the wily watch of Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) from South America, Elisa's curiosity draws her to the unexpected. Beauty and the Beast bond over their uncommunicative understanding of each other. The tacit romance between the captive anthropoid and the secret custodian bridges the gap between the real and the fantastical. The two are drawn into the whirlpool of budding love as secrets threaten to spill, stakes rise higher and spies lurk in the dark.
Designing the creature (Doug Jones under the very natural looking prosthetics) is make-up artistry and special effects at their credible best. The entire effort behind the movie most definitely reached the targeted height propped on the patience of Jones and the diligence and precision of the artists who brought del Torro's idea of the merman to life.
Jenkins, as the affable father-figure, and Stuhlbarg as the kind-hearted researcher are in their comfort zones playing the respective characters with control, ease and honesty. Michael Shannon is ruthless and brutal as the devious Colonel. Can I imagine anybody else in his role? Shannon leaves no scope for such imaginations.
It is mysterious. It is subtle and sensuous. The Shape of Water is a dark chocolate of sorts given its intense and affecting nature.
And as it speeds to the climax with an unfazed Elisa daring to risk it all, one is left shying for just that little bit more. Because you never get enough of dark chocolate.