“We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!”
That line from “Sunset Boulevard” is often quoted even now, some 70 years after it was first released, but it’s rarely been more apropos than when considering Sally Hawkins’ performance in “The Shape of Water.” She plays a mute janitor in Guillermo del Toro’s fantastical romance, and though her co-stars recite some lyrical dialogue (co-written by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor), Hawkins doesn’t — nor does she need to. As the film’s “princess without voice,” she emotes, gestures, and dances her way to the most moving performance of 2017.
Like most actors and actresses whose success seems to have come overnight, Hawkins’ didn’t. She’s likely to be nominated for her second Oscar later this month — her first, for her work opposite Cate Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine,” was long overdue — but the 41-year-old has been paying her dues for more than two decades. How’s this for a career arc: Hawkins has a starring role in next year’s “Godzilla: King of Monsters”; her first brush with franchise fare came 20 years earlier, when she had an uncredited role as an extra in “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.”
Precursor awards suggest that the question isn’t so much whether she’ll be nominated but whether she can win: Hawkins has received Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nods, plus wins from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics. Even among a competitive field that includes Saoirse Ronan and Frances McDormand, her performance stands out.
Maybe it’s the fact that, aside from one show-stopping musical number that takes place during a reverie, she doesn’t speak a single word throughout the entire film. Praise for most roles that call on a performer to limit themselves in such a way — like Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot” or Jake Gyllenhaal in “Stronger” — tends to center around their ability to navigate around that limitation; Hawkins’ performance here is so three-dimensional, so fully realized, that you almost forget Elisa is mute. Her condition informs her character without defining it.
Ditto the fact that “The Shape of Water” could accurately be described as a movie about a woman having sex with a fish-man — the premise of del Toro’s fantastical romance doesn’t come close to conveying its fairy tale–like power, much of which falls on the shoulders of Hawkins. Everything she does feels so real that the heightened reality of the plot barely registers as such. Of course she and the fish creature fall in love, we find ourselves thinking, which shouldn’t be taken for granted — it takes an incredible amount of talent both in front of and behind the camera for such a premise to instantly be accepted as not only plausible but the foundation of a beautiful love story. Hawkins is far from alone in that endeavor, but she is the face of it.
Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchligh
Doing so requires her to make herself highly vulnerable. Hawkins gives herself to the performance just as Elisa gives herself to the being known only as the Asset, committing fully to a role that might have scared other performers off.
“Anytime somebody is special you are seeing them on the screen, not seeing a character actor or a character — you’re seeing them,” Richard Jenkins told IndieWire at last fall’s Telluride Film Festival. “When you see Elisa, you see Sally. That’s who she is. It’s not something she consciously does, that’s who she is. That’s the goal, to live your life onscreen.”
Jenkins — whose character is the one who refers to Elisa as a “princess without voice” asks a question late in the film that is never fully answered: “If I told you about her, what would I say?” Elisa can’t tell us about herself, at least not verbally, so Hawkins does it in her own singular way. Every expression, every gesture resonates so strongly that, by film’s end, you might be speechless too.