It’s hard to do justice to the emotional impact of Guillermo del Toro’s newest film, The Shape of Water.
This romantic fairytale for adults is simultaneously beautiful, whimsical and magical; it is a film that is as much in love with outsiders as it is with old Hollywood films. It’s a wonderful showcase for Sally Hawkins, who has done brilliant work in smaller films and here emerges as a bonafide star without ever uttering a single word (save for a fantasy sequence in which she sings and dances!). Del Toro directs from his own script and the resulting film is clearly a labor of love.
Eliza (Hawkins) is a mute cleaner working at a high-security military laboratory in Baltimore in 1962. Her life is a series of mundane routines and even though she has a few good friends, including co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and queer neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), Eliza’s life is uneventful, unexceptional and uninspiring. Everything changes with the arrival of Strickland (Michael Shannon, properly villainous) and his mysterious South American asset (Doug Jones, looking like the brother of Hellboy‘s Abe Sapien), whom Strickland hopes to leverage into both a promotion and a weapon for the American military to use against the Soviets. But he never counted on Eliza meeting and falling in love with the Creature, nor the lengths that she will go to save it.
The Shape of Water benefits from being the unlikeliest of love stories, although her love for the creature is never made to feel odd or icky. She develops a playful relationship with it over a shared affinity for eggs, music, and dancing, though in reality their connection is built on the fact that neither fits the traditional definition of normal. This idea is organically woven into the film’s narrative and characters in the form of Zelda and a few other characters of color, and much more forcefully in Giles, who has a subplot about an ill-advised interest in the man working at the local pie shop.
Thematically this is some pretty heavy stuff, but as usual, del Toro’s mastery of fantasy elements makes it go down like sugar. The color scheme of the film fits its titular interest in water, meaning the film is awash in soothing blues, greys, and teals (including Eliza and Zelda’s work uniforms). The music is playful and soaring, befitting the film’s obsession with old Hollywood movies, which is evidenced when Eliza and Giles watch (and occasionally recreate) dance numbers in their apartments above the empty movie theatre. Still, it is important to note that The Shape of Water is equal and complementary to del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth in that it surprisingly scary, graphic and adult in places. A scene involving the creature’s attack on Strickland early in the film is graphic and bloody, while later scenes between Eliza and the creature feature frank sexuality that is refreshingly honest (and brilliantly conveyed by a change in costume color).
At its roots, The Shape of Water is a love story. It may feature elements from the horror, action/heist and spy genres, but its foundation component is Eliza and what happens when she meets the individual she has been waiting for all of her life. It is a beautiful, evocative and captivating film, guaranteed to resonate with audiences old and young. Simply put, it is one of the best films of the year.