I’ve yet to see a Guillermo del Toro film that made me a true believer, but this visually ravishing adult fairytale came closest, and is easily the one I’ve enjoyed the most. At the very least, you gotta admire him for tackling a premise that many would find way too icky with such sincerity.
Though the movie pretty much declares itself a fairytale right from its poetic prologue, technically it takes place in Baltimore in the early 60s, with Civil Rights movement, Cold War and space race between the USA and USSR lurking in the background. Our heroine Elisa (marvellous Sally Hawkins) is a lowly cleaning lady at a top-secret research facility, where the US military are looking for any ways to get advantage over those damn Soviets. Elisa is mute (her vocal chords were cut when she was a baby), and lives alone in a crumbling apartment above an almost always empty movie theatre. Her only friends are Zelda, a fellow cleaning woman (Octavia Spencer), and her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), a commercial artist and a gentle soul forced into the closet and bitterness by the homophobia of the era. While isolated, Elisa is certainly not sexless, as evidenced by her daily morning ritual of pleasuring herself in the bathtub while waiting for the eggs to boil.
Elisa’s monotonous life is interrupted one day by the arrival of a new “asset”, an amphibious creature dragged all the way from Brazil who could be a humanoid alien from Star Trek TV shows except with much better make-up and effects. The men in charge of the creature are a government agent Strickland (Michael Shannon), a racist, sexist, cruel yet pathetic creep, and Dr Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), an empathetic scientist with a big secret. When Elisa and Zelda are called one day to mop up the lab, Elisa makes an unlikely connection with the creature, which intensifies with time and leads her to stage a rescue attempt. With yet more time, their relationship leaves the strictly platonic realm altogether.
Like all other del Toro movies I’ve seen, The Shape of Water is a visual feast with rich and beautiful colours; I’d never have believed that shabby apartments and dunk industrial spaces could look so gorgeous onscreen. Sally Hawkins’ performance is superlative; she has a naturally sweet and sympathetic face and Elisa’s character could easily have slided into twee cutesiness, but Hawkins gives her a sensual, sly edge. The supporting characters are likewise strong; Michael Shannon is maybe over-familiar as a baddie at this point, but he sure does make for a great villain. The movie is very much an adult fairytale, with splashings of gore and nudity you won’t see in your average Disney movie.
Though overall I enjoyed Guillermo del Toro’s lavish, dreamy fantasy, I had a couple of issues, one major, one minor. For all of the movie’s swoony romanticism and sincere commitment, I couldn’t quite turn off the inner voice that remained sceptical on what exactly is the appeal of the Lizard Man as a life partner. I could certainly buy compassion for a mistreated being, a sense of kindred souls both without a voice, even attraction, but the creature simply had too little in the way of a discernible personality for me to fully get onboard the romance. The movie was also another one where I couldn’t help but cringe through the scenes between so-called Russian characters, because their “Russian” was so mangled and awful. Why oh why couldn’t you hire real Russians for minor roles, Guillermo del Toro??