The Shape of Water is a love letter to classic cinema and creature features, but with director Guillermo del Toro’s unmistakable spirit gushing throughout.
Orphaned and mute since infancy, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) works as a janitor in a high-security government laboratory in early 1960s Baltimore. We follow her daily routine consisting of grafting with co-worker-turned-guardian Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) and socialising with neighbour and struggling illustrator Giles (Richard Jenkins). Elisa appears content and life plods on until she encounters the facility’s latest arrival. Dragged from its habitat in South America, the mysterious amphibian man (Doug Jones) is dubbed “the asset”, as its qualities could be an advantage in the Space Race. Scientists including mellow Dr Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) intend to study the creature. Whereas malicious Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) takes an immediate dislike to him, relishing in the fact that the amphibian’s fate lies in his violent hands.
Elisa and the creature bond over their mutual silence, communicating through gestures of food, music and the occasional snippet of sign language the amphibian grasps. Their love story is slightly rushed and relies on the audience’s willingness to accept that their parallels and initial connection are substantial enough to fill an entire movie. More time dedicated to them as their relationship intensifies would have provided a seamless progression as stakes heighten. Rather than an overemphasis on an overfamiliar villain, no matter how excellent the always dependable Shannon is.
Without uttering a word, Hawkins breathes life into the film. While timid at first glance, there’s a gentle air of confidence about Elisa. Not concerning herself too much with how others perceive her, as she’s too busy wrapped up in her own world, quite literally pleasing herself. When the need arises, Elisa also picks her battles with conviction. Frequent collaborator Jones once again adds weight to a role with his slender physicality while under heavy prosthetic make-up. There’s no shortage of support either, warmth radiates from Spencer and Jenkins and Stuhlbarg remains on form as conflicted Dr Hoffstetler, after his superb turn in Call Me by Your Name.
The Shape of Water has considerably more depth than del Toro’s previous films Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak, although overall the film isn’t as heartrending as it aspires to be. Not quite reaching the dizzying heights of Pan’s Labyrinth, with moments of awe stemming from magical visuals (that are bolstered by Alexandre Desplat’s swirling score) rather than raw emotional heft. Director of photography Dan Laustsen gracefully captures moments of underwater elegance that clash with soulless secretive hallways and flashes of grisly violence. Similar to Hellboy, del Toro’s depiction of outsiders and minorities is authentic and heartfelt. From Zelda’s ethnicity, Giles’ sexuality and Elisa’s disability, they’re bound by the prejudices against them and you root for them from the offset.
The pleasure del Toro takes in crafting fantastical cinematic wonder is infectious, so charming that you flow with the film, despite its shortcomings.