Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer in “THE FORM of Drinking water”
Guillermo del Toro may know much better than any living filmmaker how to make a fantasy with cleverness and maturity. He could make some miscalculations — I came across much to admire but little to enjoy in his 2015 Victorian Gothic extravaganza “Crimson Optimum” — but never shows a lack of artistry and aspiration.
With his dreamlike love account “The Shape of Normal water,” Del Toro doesn’t just rebound from that unsatisfactory misstep, he comes roaring back triumph with the best film of his stellar career. An enchanting re-imagining of “Beauty and the Beast,” it can be an unforgettably romantic, absolutely sublime, stunning phantasmagoria.
It starts with a dreamscape that could appear unusual in smaller hands but feels visionary under Del Toro’s touch. The camera glides through a teal green normal water world, past wavering recliners, lamps and dining tables, all swirling in the inside of an flooded apartment such as a school of seafood. Floating amid them, also underwater, is a female easily slumbering on the living room couch.
As water gradually drains away, we listen to the honeyed male voice of the narrator. “EASILY advised you about her, the Princess Without Words, what would I say?” Soul-satisfying shots, a lulling intro to a sleeping beauty; what better way to create the scene for a voyage into make-believe?
The girl is Elisa (Sally Hawkins in a galvanizing performance that amounts power and vulnerability). She actually is a mute woman living a tidy, orderly and quite limited life in early 1960s Baltimore. She lives together but loves close romantic relationships with her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted commercial artist, and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), her co-worker on the cleaning team at a secretive authorities research facility.
Enough time is the elevation of the Chilly Warfare. Washington is fixated on rocketing past the Soviet Union in the space competition, building bomb shelters and taking enemy spies. Closer to home, many Americans consider “others” — those with abilities, skin tones or erotic dispositions not the same as the majority — to be misfits. Just how those themes are woven collectively is a marvel in a film stocked with major ones.
Elisa and Zelda are aware that something significant, called the Advantage, is concealed behind the security door to the top secret laboratory. Scientists in lab jackets and military officials in dress outfits march officiously past their cleaning carts. More menacing is the lab’s new brain of security, Col. Strickland (Michael Shannon), who views everyone with the wintry expression of an sharpshooter eyeing a concentrate on.
Elisa packages aside her chores to look inside the home window of the facility’s aquarium, where she discovers a tall, dark stranger. He is a blue-skinned, amphibious man from the Amazon . com, where natives consider him a god, kidnapped to THE UNITED STATES and imprisoned for research.
Egghead scientist Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who found out and captured the Asset, favors simply dissecting him. Elisa, recognizing a kindred spirit in this isolated, terribly treated creature, begins sneaking him snacks and playing him Glenn Miller details. She’s warm, dedicated friendships with Giles and Zelda, but it is merely with the silent Asset — the Other — that Elisa feels true heart-to-heart interconnection.
The stakes climb higher among the Advantage research team is ordered by the Kremlin to assassinate the creature prior to the People in america learn too much. The film pivots into enjoyable spy thriller place, as if a creature feature/love history/dance music is insufficient to carry the audience’s attention.
From this improbable idea, Del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor have carved an exquisite jewel. Elisa and her attractive aquatic good friend not only make impassioned love, they talk better than the speaking character types do.
Once the patronizing Strickland satisfies voiceless Elisa, it’s only one minute before he feels her name is Delilah. A visit to Zelda’s house shows her good-looking, no-account spouse. In Del Toro’s world, there is no such thing as a one-dimensional tad player. Lovelorn, toupee-topped Giles, who acts as the film’s narrator, attempts to discuss his way into many men’s esteem, sometimes comically, sometimes poignantly, never efficiently. In that role the incurably great Jenkins shines like refined gold, as do all the ensemble, including regular Del Toro collaborator Doug Jones as the Advantage.
The director’s reverence for theatre is on display. Who else would identify Elisa’s apartment atop a city movie palace and spend some time showing us its cathedral-worthy interior structures and the sumptuous biblical epics it shows during a time turning ever nearer to monster movie schlock? Or give Giles another layer of mankind through the loving films that run on his TV?
Naturally, Del Toro being Del Toro, his eyesight also includes clusters of eroticism and violence. But the occasions of gore are specifically crafted to enhance the storyplot, not provide surprise value (though they actually). The orgasmic occasions are alluring, not lewd. Everything builds to a buoyant water finale that echoes the weightless beginning. It’s a fitted end for a film that sends you away with your feet off the ground.