Guillermo del Toro loves monsters, and he wants you to love them too. Much of his filmography has been a testament to this love, with Chronos, Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, and Pacific Rim all containing beautifully detailed and complex monstrous creatures, but no film has embodied this passion as much as The Shape of Water – a love story between a monster and a mute woman.
Sally Hawkins is exquisite as Elisa Esposito, a mute janitor for a mysterious government facility who is very much stuck in her own daily routine. Her desire for companionship alternates between watching old musicals with her closeted gay neighbour, Giles (Richard Jenkins), and listening to her workmate Zelda (Octavia Spencer) as she complains about her husband. It’s not until she discovers the Amphibious Man (Doug Jones), a fish-like creature being kept for study in the laboratory, that she finds a creature that seems to truly understand her. The remarkable thing about The Shape of Water is how it makes a love story between two silent characters so expressive – the connection between them was so evident through the performers’ faces and body language that it almost never registers that the characters never share a word. Hawkins brings fragility to Elisa without ever weakening her, creating the impression of a woman who has been hurt so badly that she’s yet to discover her own strength. Eliza’s frustration at being unable to properly express herself to those around her is evident in nearly every scene she shares with another human, even those who speak sign language, and makes her relationship with the Amphibious Man all the more impactful as they transcend verbal communication.
Doug Jones and Guillermo del Toro have created a number of iconic monstrous characters together, such as the Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth and Abe Sapien from Hellboy, and the Amphibious Man is possibly their best one yet. It’s a beautiful, intricate costume that turns into something remarkably emotive and powerful through Jones’ movements. There’s a constant air of mystery around him, a creature that is alternatingly magical and dangerous. Del Toro’s script, co-written with Vanessa Taylor, plays off a typical ‘Beauty and the Beast’ structure in a manner that feels familiar at times yet constantly manages to surprise. Only a director as unique as Del Toro could deliver a film that merges stylistic influence from Cold War inspired B movies with Golden Age Hollywood musicals, and deliver a fantasy romance prestige picture such as this. Under a lesser director it could have seemed a tonal mess, but Del Toro’s graceful and passionate direction brings out the best qualities from a myriad of genres. The Shape of Water comes across as an ode to the unappreciated most of all – the main cast consists of a mute woman, a gay man, a black woman, and a foreign creature. Each character has a moment where they are attacked or feared for being who they are, yet Elisa’s message that “If we do nothing, neither are we” speaks to a refusal to have their voices or actions silenced.
There’s something magical about The Shape of Water from the very first scene, as the camera slowly moves through the flooded sets while Alexandre Desplat’s ethereal theme plays, and that spell stays unbroken until the credits finish rolling. Del Toro has always had the peculiar gift to make all of his films feel like passion projects, whether they’re intimate Spanish ghost stories like The Devil’s Backbone or spectacle-driven blockbusters like Pacific Rim, but The Shape of Water is constructed with such tender care and beauty that it’s impossible to not feel the love Del Toro’s put in – and impossible not to reciprocate.