It would be an impressive feat to pull off such a tale by just making it credible and interesting; but with The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro weaves a masterful, beautiful love story by any standard. Nevermind that one half the fated couple involves a creature of the sea.
Indeed, this premise, a fantastical one from times long ago, is hard to fathom. And it’s improbably to figure how to pull it off. With care, tenderness, whimsy, and devotion, though, this film is immediately and forever enthralling.
We’re in Baltimore in 1962, and we begin by meeting a determined yet maligned woman named Elisa (Sally Hawkins). She lives alone above a movie theatre, but spends much time with her neighbour and best friend Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay painter who finds himself frequently ostracized too, having recently lost a job and a partner. Elisa works at a government research facility as part of the janitorial staff, and there her close friend is a chatty and fierce woman named Zelda (Octavia Spencer).
It’s telling that the people Elisa is closest to are set against, as one is gay and one is black. Elisa herself is mute, seen as incomplete or simply an object of amusement. Racism, sexism, homophobia linger in the background of the film that in one instance, dabbles with a very timely situations involving workplace harassment. It’s the subtle messages in the background that help place firmly the message up front: that love involves a desire of many things, cannot be controlled, and should be freely pursued.
What propels The Shape of Water, which quickly finds Elisa intrigued by the man-like creature held captive by a brutish figure (Michael Shannon), playing music for him and leaving him treats, is a most magical look and feel. Blues and greens infuse a palate, while a lovely soundtrack stresses love and endearment.
From curiosity to enchantment, Water hits a peak during a wild, tense escape from the lab. We’ve then wonder, exploration, and charm, culminating in a frantic, spellbinding finish.
There is so much detail given to the film, one that doesn’t have a wasted shot or gesture. Our villain is the gatekeeper of the creature, a man whose masculinity resides in power, control, and the kind of car one drives. He is casually racist and sexist, loathsome in his individual comments and actions but also of what he represents. This isn’t exactly the most ringing endorsement of heterosexual males.
Sally Hawkins is mesmerizing and sweet, a credible and winning as our heroine, all without uttering a word or falling into caricature. She has agency and strength, and it’s all the more wonderful that her two friends in the film never question her, never undermine her. They don’t see the creature as something blasphemous. These are people pushed the sides of society; they are united by love and friendship.
It all adds up to a most breathtaking, gorgeous, and lovely story, one both unlikely in her time and sorely needed.