Like H.P. Lovecraft, whose At the Mountains of Madness he’s long attempted to bring to the screen, Guillermo del Toro loves scary, slimy monsters—the sort that slither across dank floors and lurk in inky shadows. In addition to that creature-feature fandom, however, he boasts the eye of a sly social critic and the heart of a romantic, and that’s never been more apparent than in The Shape of Water, the Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth auteur’s entrancing fairy tale about a mute woman and a fish man whose interspecies love crosses all barriers.
Led by a phenomenal Sally Hawkins, it’s a fantasy cast in a familiar del Toro mold: all slick subterranean locales, affectionate classic cinema shout-outs, deftly detailed protagonists, and fiends of a decidedly human variety—and one that functions as a poignant parable about the ugliness of discrimination, and the transcendent beauty and power of “otherness.”
As del Toro’s camera wends its way through an apartment seemingly located at the bottom of the ocean, Richard Jenkins’ narration about “love and loss,” and about a princess—cue the image of a slumbering female suspended in water above a couch—sets the film’s storybook-ish tone. The would-be royal heroine in question is Elisa Esposito (Hawkins), a vocally impaired woman who lives in that previously seen abode, which is actually dry and situated directly above a movie theater in 1960s Baltimore. Across the hall is her dear friend Giles (Jenkins), an artist struggling to reignite his alcohol-derailed career by drawing Jell-O advertisements, and whose appetite for the pies at local franchise restaurant “Dixie Doug’s” is mainly due to his fondness for the young man (Morgan Kelly) working the counter. Able to communicate through sign language, Elisa and Giles are a pair of outcasts—he stuck in the closet and residing amongst cats, and she equally alone, her life defined by a daily routine that includes boiling eggs and setting a timer before getting into a bath for a brief bit of self-pleasure.
Elisa’s partiality to the tub, as well as her mysterious gill-like neck scars (not to mention the fact that she was an orphan found as an infant along a riverbank), are early indications that she’s inherently connected to the water. Thus, she finds herself naturally drawn to the mysterious new “asset” that arrives at the secret research facility where she works alongside chatty best friend Zelda (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer) as a cleaning lady. Encased in a tank, that subject is a mythological fish man (the always remarkable Doug Jones) who resembles Hellboy’s Abe Sapien (also played by Jones) but cannot speak and is viewed by his government captors as the key to figuring out how to breathe in space. He’s a vital pawn in the ever-escalating Space Race against the Russians, and for the man who dragged him from the Amazon to Maryland, Agent Strickland (Michael Shannon), he’s a primitive specimen—viewed as a God by natives—to be abused with a cattle prod, vivisected, and then thrown away.
Elisa soon develops a kindred bond with this merman, and her desire to protect him from harm is shared by Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Soviet spy who objects to his communist bosses’ desire to have the creature stolen or killed. The Shape of Water is consequently overflowing with pariahs, many of whom are either actively (Giles, Hoffstetler) or passively (Elisa) suppressing their true identities—or, in the case of Zelda, are forced to behave submissively while suffering racist barbs. Anything unique finds itself in the crosshairs in del Toro’s tale, such that Elisa is also preyed upon sexually by Strickland, a military brute who prefers that his cheery domestic wife stay silent while he’s ramrodding her in bed, and who—courtesy of losing two fingers to the merman, and having them unsuccessfully reattached—is a beast whose rancid, rotten nature is plain for all to see.
Shannon is perfectly cast as the bigoted Strickland, almost to a fault; after so many similar parts, there’s little surprise to his performance, to the point that one patiently waits for him to begin quoting from the Bible. An overarching air of predictability, in fact, is what keeps The Shape of Water from achieving true greatness, as del Toro telegraphs his material’s trajectory at the outset and then hits virtually every expected dramatic beat along the way. At times, one craves a bit more volatility; an instance or two of out-of-the-blue insanity, to upend the narrative’s coasting-along momentum, even though the director crafts each individual sequence with an attention to detail—regarding setting, character, and mood—that’s enchanting.
There is one such astonishing moment: a glitzy 1930s-style black-and-white musical reverie featuring Elisa and the merman dancing arm-in-arm that, like the classic movies Giles watches on TV—including a The Little Colonel clip featuring another mismatched but harmonious pair, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Shirley Temple—expresses The Shape of Water’s old-Hollywood amour. Del Toro’s fondness for yesteryear’s cinema permeates the entire film, felt in his painstaking design of interior and exterior spaces and in his sincere, irony-free sentimentality. Elisa and the merman’s relationship plays out not as a sardonic joke or as a soggy allegory but, rather, as a sweet affair between kindred souls (bonded by “animal magnetism”), and orbited by other individual tales of prejudice and persecution that are equally imbued with empathy for the outsider’s plight.
The Shape of Water is another visual del Toro feast, its every damp locale colored in shades of wet, moldy green (save for evil Strickland’s sunshiny home), and its humor lively, especially in a gag involving Strickland’s brand-new Cadillac.
Even better than its offhand wittiness, its aesthetic splendor or its shrewd social commentary, however, is its headliner. Ever since her breakthrough big-screen role in Mike Leigh’s 2008 film Happy-Go-Lucky, the England-born Hawkins has been one of international cinema’s most distinctive leads, and here, deprived of speech, she delivers a turn of guileless nuance and heartwarming expressiveness. With a twinkle in her eye that suggests she’s quietly assessing everything around her, and a ferocious determination that manifests itself during a passionate outburst against Giles, Hawkins never feels like the twee device that Elisa might, in worse hands, have turned out to be; on the contrary, she comes across as both an everywoman firmly grounded in reality and a regal maiden transported from some old-school Disney fable. She’s magic.