The Shape of Water posits Guillermo del Toro as a far more sensual and romantic filmmaker than one might initially give him credit for. Surprisingly, there’s very little horror here, just a visually stunning water ballet about love and longing.
Anchored by a sublime and immensely sweet performance from Sally Hawkins, the film’s teal-painted aesthetic, dreamy orchestration and beautiful world building, casts a hypnotic and irresistible spell on open-minded audiences.
Set during the American-Russian space race and Cold War, Del Toro has remixed and infused traditional fables, with Beauty and the Beast and Creature from the Black Lagoon, to explore the connection between a mute cleaning lady (Sally Hawkins) and an Amazonian river creature (Doug Jones – not playing Abe Sapien – but kind of playing Abe Sapien).
The filmmaker has made a career out of twisting our preconceived notions of monsters and men, and finding the humanity in all souls. While light on story, the film invites you to simply be present and witness the intimacy of a silent love affair between these two imperfect creatures.
Del Toro, never afraid to go to “interesting” places, signals pretty heavily how far this relationship will go and the couple’s eventual interspecies copulation might prove a step too far for some. For others, it’s an artful and odd experience that feels strangely human.
Along for the fairytale, is the always-warm Richard Jenkins and Michael Shannon in his most Michael Shannon-esque role (almost to the film’s detriment). The film paints in broad, simplistic strokes at times, and none more so than Shannon’s hard-boiled bureaucrat, Strickland. We know he’s the real monster, and greater nuance in his character might have made his antagonist a little more three dimensional and engaing.
Hawkins’ Elisa, on the other hand, is a beautiful reimagining and expunging of the traditional princess stereotype. Voiceless, like Ariel, but never lacking in expression and wanting, Hawkins is a dream to journey alongside in this world. There’s a brief, yet fascinating moment involving the character joyfully manipulating rain droplets on a window which hints at the character’s significance in a larger fantasy universe. One that is in desperate need of greater exploration.
Also – make sure to watch out for a clever subversion of the Cinderella slipper in the final few frames.
With imagination and magic sewn into every scene and a potent adoration for the mythology, The Shape of Water is easily del Toro’s best film since Pan’s Labyrinth and another reminder that no human being could ever love anything more than del Toro loves his monsters.