The magic of storytelling is being able to see the world through the eyes of another for even just a short amount of time. For the more personal a story, the deeper the enrichment. There are plenty of filmmakers who pour their hearts and souls onto the screen, but none are quite as unique as Guillermo del Toro. He’s a director who is never shy about how he feels and what he wants to say, which is why his latest effort, “The Shape of Water,” feels like the culmination of his entire filmography. His love of monsters and the fantastical, his empathy for the marginalized and the powerless, and his rage against authoritarianism are woven together in a timely, enchanting romance that is always direct and immaculately crafted. “The Shape of Water” may very well be del Toro’s masterwork, one where all that is asked of the audience to dive in and allow themselves to be engulfed and embraced by this sincerely touching ode to anybody who has ever felt like an outsider.
Set in 1962 Baltimore at the height of the Cold War, the film follows Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman who works as a janitor at a government research facility with her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Elisa’s life is one dictated by routine. Sleep during the day in her apartment that rests above a movie theater, wake up, boil eggs, masturbate in the shower, and work the night shift. Her only company at home is her friendly neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted commercial artist who was recently let go from his job. Elisa’s incomplete existence is upended by the arrival of the research facility’s newest asset, a humanoid amphibian (Doug Jones) who was captured by Col. Strickland (Michael Shannon) for cruel and abusive purposes. Forming an unlikely bond with the creature, Elisa conspires with her friends to save him from a terrible fate.
“The Shape of Water” is a juggling act of a variety of tones. It’s a science fiction story, a romance, a political thriller, a heist film, and even a musical. Balancing this many tones is challenging. So challenging that many directors have tried and failed in their attempts at blending tones. Luckily, del Toro has a delicate yet precise grip on the script he wrote alongside co-writer Vanessa Taylor. In what may be the best directing effort on the year, del Toro carefully guides every facet of the production from front and behind the camera to create a world that is much like our own, but with the heightened sensibilities the filmmaker has become famous for.
Never to be one to hide his intentions, del Toro takes full advantage of the 1962 setting. It’s no coincidence that our main protagonists are a disabled woman, a gay man, and a black woman going up against an Anglo-Saxon, Christian man. In what is clearly a direct response to the current political administration, the story unfolds in a time where America was only great for heterosexual white men. Strickland is white-male privilege and toxic masculinity incarnate, and Michael Shannon is utterly unnerving as the film’s central villain. The way he makes not-so-subtle racist remarks towards Zelda or sexually harasses Elisa is enough to make one’s skin crawl. He’s terrifying not just because he is a racist, misogynistic tyrant, but also because he benefits from a system specifically designed to support men like him. In the films of del Toro, the monsters are not the other-worldly creatures, but the humans who walk among us, who try to convince people that certain others are undeserving of love or kindness and must be met with hatred and brutality.
It’s this otherness is why Elisa grows so fond of the creature. In him, she sees a tormented soul, one who has suffered in a seemingly indifferent universe, just like her. As she signs to Giles midway through the film, when the creature looks at her, he doesn’t see her for how she is incomplete, but for who she is and as she is. While the romance is working off a template established by “Beauty and the Beast,” the monster does not change into a handsome prince at the end. Doing so would undermine the message of the story. Love is not about changing someone. It’s about recognizing everything a person is, including their flaws, and choosing to love them anyway.
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, this interspecies romance could have easily been disastrous. However, del Toro works from sincerity, not sleaziness. He lays the necessary groundwork so the audience isn’t turned off by a woman falling for a fish monster, but is instead actively rooting for the two to live happily ever after. His camera also never leers uncomfortably at his leading lady when she is performing a nude scene. It’s so rare in a Hollywood picture where a woman over the age of 40 (Hawkins is 41) possesses sexual agency. So when Elisa finally decides to physically consummate her relationship with the creature, it’s a consensual, intimate, passionate, and joyous affair rather than a perverse one.
Half of the spark of the film comes from its ensemble cast made up entirely of character actors giving some of their best performances to date. Jenkins imbues Giles with his distinct brand of vulnerability and sweetness that makes us empathize with him while Spencer’s Zelda proves to be the most emotionally flexible character of the film. She’s funny, headstrong, supportive, but also abrasive and fearful when she needs to be. However, the story relies heavily on Elisa, a character unable to speak, and Sally Hawkins absolutely owns both the role and the movie. Reliant entirely on facial expressions, body and sign language, Hawkins’ performance feels so effortless that she transforms into Elisa. Her character is both the lead and the heart of the story, and while the script and del Toro’s direction all contribute greatly to fully flesh out the character, none of that would have been as strong without Hawkins inhabiting the role.
Both Hawkins and Doug Jones, who plays the amphibian man, have terrific chemistry in spite of playing characters rendered nonverbal. Jones himself has a formidable presence as the creature. The way he contorts his body and utilizes his facial features despite being covered entirely in make-up turns the monster into a surprisingly credible romantic lead. del Toro has repeatedly gone on record saying the design of the creature took three years to properly execute, and it shows. The make-up department did a commendable job crafting an amphibian man inspired by the Gill-man from “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” while still giving him a visually-distinct look to stand on his own.
“The Shape of Water” is a film that is firing on all cylinders. From the direction, script, performances, visual effects, production design, cinematography, and even Alexandre Desplat’s wondrous score. There is not a single underutilized or unnecessary element. Every singly moving piece of this picture is working together in harmony towards a singular goal: To craft a beautiful, sweeping, emotionally resonant, politically topical romance about finding solace and passion in an era of hardship. This is Guillermo del Toro working at the top of his game. His affinity for the downtrodden has been never been more perfectly suited to a story before. He understands that love is the most powerful force in the universe, and it can be whatever someone needs it to be. It can connect across distance, heal wounds, wash away sadness and loneliness, bring about new beginnings, and fully envelope with soothing sensitivity until its presence is all that remains. Just like the shape of water.