Although Guillermo del Toro was never given the opportunity to bring his vision of The Hobbit to the screen, movie-goers over the years have not been deprived of his brand of horror-tinged fantasy. With his latest, the story is a variation on Beauty and the Beast with a "monster" who resembles the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Yet, as is sometimes the case in tales of this nature, appearance is no determiner of true beauty, and gentleness and compassion rarely go unrewarded. The Shape of Water is an adult fairy tale that encourages the same emotional responses often engendered by such simple, heartfelt stories. It’s hard to come away from this film and not believe that, in his heart, writer/director del Toro is a romantic.
The movie is set in the 1960s and, as with del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, real world concerns (in this case, Cold War espionage) are conflated with fantasy. The three protagonists are members of a minority or suffer from a disability — Sally Hawkins’ Elisa is mute, Octavia Spencer’s Zelda is black, and Richard Jenkins’ Giles is a closeted gay man — while the antagonist, Michael Shannon’s Strickland, is a clean-cut, hard-working WASP. By thus establishing the foundation, del Toro is able to make a social statement before introducing the merman into the equation. The Shape of Water is very much about cultural and racial myth-busting.
Hawkins is one of the most accomplished working character actors but she is not what one would consider to be conventionally beautiful. She looks more like a next-door neighbor than a movie actress. For The Shape of Water, it doesn’t matter — you’ll fall in love with her in what amounts to the best performance of a career of often overlooked top-notch portrayals. She’s luminous. She sells the movie, transforming an inter-species romance into something delicate and delightful. And she does all this without a line of dialogue. Purportedly, in order to play Elisa, she studied Chaplin and other silent film greats and, through this, discovered how to convey emotion through gestures and expressions.
Few actors can play a handsome monster better than Shannon. The guy is scary and intense and that intensity makes Strickland a frightening villain: a sadist, a butcher, and the ugliest sort of patriot. Even in his home life — a typical suburban existence — he’s a coiled spring ready to go off. Jenkins, playing a part originally envisioned for Ian McKellan, mixes wry humor with deep humanity as Giles, Elisa’s father-figure. An underused Spencer brings warmth to the stereotyped "best friend" role and Doug Jones, a frequent collaborator of the director (he played the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth), imbues the amphibious man with a degree of humanity that might have been difficult to achieve via motion capture (del Toro opted for the old-fashioned 3-hour makeup job instead of pure CGI).
The movie opens by introducing us to Elisa and providing a snapshot of her daily routine. She makes a living by working as a cleaning woman at a military facility. After work, she comes home to an apartment she shares with Giles and goes about her nightly activities: hard-boiling eggs, taking a bath, and masturbating. All the while, the muffled sounds of movies float up from below; the apartment is atop a theater. Then, one day, Strickland arrives at Elisa’s workplace along with a scientist, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), and something referred to only as "the asset." Elisa is curious about the creature, who is kept chained in an oversized tub of water. She sneaks in to see him and, by offering him an egg, establishes the beginning of a tentative bond. She teaches her new friend sign language and, when Strickland receives permission from his superiors to vivisect the creature, she enlists Giles to help her with an elaborate escape plan.
The romantic aspect of The Shape of Water touches in ways many conventional love stories do not. Both Elisa and the creature are lonely souls. We know little about his background except that he was "discovered" in the Amazon where he was worshipped as a god. Elisa’s story is equally murky, although we learn that she was orphaned after someone tried to slit her throat as a child. Physical appearance is irrelevant; it’s the heart that matters. That’s the message of Beauty and the Beast and The Shape of Water, except Elisa isn’t a princess and the creature isn’t a man trapped by a magical spell.
Aspects of The Shape of Water recall E.T. As in Spielberg’s classic, this movie features of a group of unlikely heroes defying government forces to save a beloved friend and return him home. Or maybe Starman would be a better comparison because in John Carpenter’s 1984 feature, love and romance blossomed. Regardless of which antecedent you prefer, The Shape of Water is a special movie with relevant themes and a strong emotional payoff. It rebukes intolerance, affirms love in all its forms and guises, and does so with a strong dose of adventure and suspense. It arguably didn’t deserve the Oscar as the best picture of the year, but it is definitely one of last year’s best films.