Guillermo Del Toro is a master of the modern fairy tale. In The Shape of Water, he tells the story of a budding love between a mute woman named Elisa and a captive fish creature. Like the very best of Del Toro, the film blurs the line between reality and fantasy and succeeds as an allegorical tale about the transformative power of love. Set in the Cold War Era, most of the story takes place in a secret government facility replete with scientists, gung-ho military jerk-offs, and spies. This setting provides the canvass for Del Toro’s peculiar aesthetic, as well as the majority of the tension. The performances are outstanding, from the supporting characters to the leads to the man in the Fish Monster suit. Simply put, The Shape of Water is a gorgeous little tale and the reason why movies can be so magical.
The film opens with a classic fairly tale intro in the form of a voice-over setting the stage. It’s visually engrossing as well: the main character Elisa sleeps suspended in her completely flooded apartment. As the water drains away, the real world settles in, and we’re in for quite a ride.
The plot of The Shape of Water focuses on a pair of cleaning ladies at a secret government facility (Elisa, played by Sally Hawkins and Zelda, played by Octavia Spencer). They’re expected to keep their heads down and ask no questions. One day, a new asset is delivered to a large room with a tank: it’s a strange Fish Man from South America resembling the creature from the black lagoon (played expertly by Del Toro mainstay Doug Jones). A government official named Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) is in charge of gathering data from this asset, though he delights in torturing the creature along the way.
Meanwhile, a scientist played by Michael Stuhlbarg fights back against Strickland, imploring that they treat the creature with respect because of all that it can teach them, but his pleas mostly fall on deaf ears. When Elisa is sent into the room with the creature to clean it, she takes a liking to the Fish Man, offering him a hard-boiled egg. The two become fast friends, and once she learns that he is in danger, she hatches a jailbreak plot. The story then becomes a heist, morphs into a love story, and then ends just as it started: a beautiful fairy tale.
Each and every one of the performances in The Shape of Water are absolutely incredible. Michael Shannon is always the perfect blowhard, and you love to hate him here just as much as you always have. Sally Hawkins is responsible for carrying the majority of the pathos of the film, as she is the character that actually has to convince us that one could fall in love with a Fish Man. Doug Jones also does astounding work, as he is able to emote clearly but subtly through a huge rubber suit. Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Richard Jenkins each add their own amazing elements to the story. Whether headlining or supporting, whether naked or adorned with a rubber suit, the performances are outstanding.
The actors are certainly helped by Del Toro’s fantastic aesthetic. The design of the creature is awesome, and the Soviet-era backdrop of the film lends a Cold War kind of paranoia to most scenes in the research lab. Things are dingy and cold, and most of the time the mood of the film seems hard and unfeeling. Though this is a real era in US history, the set design and overall aesthetic lends the film a distinct out-of-time quality, which helps to create Del Toro’s distinctly magical nature of the fairy tale story. It isn’t too dissimilar from Pan’s Labyrinth – both are set during an identifiable historical era but hold fantastical elements at the heart of the story.
Similarly, though The Shape of Water is ostensibly a science fiction film, it might make more sense to classify it as a fantastical allegory. There are just too many moments where Del Toro plays with the idea of an “elastic” reality to take this story at face value. With that in mind, the themes in the film lean towards the archetypal and universal: the fighting for freedom and life, finding one’s place in the world, and the power and universality of love. The magic of Del Toro is that he is able to convince the spectator that all of these strange things make a certain fundamental sense. This is Del Toro as visionary, as a teller of unique and distinctive stories. He has always championed the power of fables to communicate essential truths, and consistently provides stunning examples of this kind of storytelling.
The Shape of Water is an awesome experience. As a mute girl and a fish creature from the Amazon fall in love, the spectator is treated to a brilliant combination of fantasy storytelling, engrossing visuals, and essential themes. Del Toro’s aesthetic shines in this film, and he also gets multiple superlative performances out of his actors. Though the film will undoubtedly weird out some viewers, The Shape of Water is one of the most interesting, distinctive, and magical films of recent memory.