The Shape of Water is actually not the first time Guillermo Del Toro has explored an unlikely love story between a woman and an aquatic male humanoid. A subplot in Hellboy II: The Golden Army between Abe Sapien and Princess Nuala feels like something of a forerunner. To be fair, that was a very different film, and yes alright technically Nuala is an Elf, but nonetheless Del Toro has dipped his toe into these waters before. In addition, the film clearly draws influences from a wide bouquet of cinema history, in everything from Splash to The Creature from the Black Lagoon. There’s even a hint of Powell/Pressburger’s classic A Matter of Life and Death.
All that said, The Shape of Water feels unique. A quirky, surreal yet poignant adult fairy tale romance set at the height of the Cold War, the plot concerns Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaner at a top secret government facility. Her routine of friendship with gay artist neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), egg-timer morning masturbation, bus journeys and keeping her head down whilst cleaning around government bigwigs is disrupted when a mysterious amphibian humanoid captured in the Amazon is brought to where she works. Said amphibian is tortured and generally ill-treated by security man Strickland (Michael Shannon), although his captive does occasionally bite back – literally. However, Elisa finds she is able to communicate with the creature, and the two form a bond.
With such a bizarre premise, the film really shouldn’t work. Yet somehow it does – brilliantly. Performances are all terrific, especially from Sally Hawkins. It’s also worth giving a special mention to Octavia Spencer and Michael Stuhlbarg, who crop up in key supporting roles – the former as a friend and colleague of Elisa, and the latter as a Russian agent working undercover at the facility. Dan Lausten’s cinematography is strikingly beautiful, visual effects are very well done, and Alexandre Desplat contributes a fine music score.
Although Del Toro is as monster obsessed as they come, here, as in many of his films, the true monster is human. Strickland is a necessarily unredeemable fairy tale villain, whose delusional belief in 1950s Apple Pie Americana propaganda leads him to commit horrible acts. By contrast, Elisa exhibits intelligence, understanding, compassion and tremendous bravery.
Some misguided Christians have absurdly claimed that the film promotes bestiality, but that is to wilfully misunderstand the metaphors. Yes, some Christian audiences won’t be able to get past the swearing, violence, gore and sexual frankness on display here, but underneath all that, this is essentially a variation on Beauty and the Beast, with humane things to say about loneliness and being different.
Quite honestly, I loved it. I’m not sure it’s quite as good as Pan’s Labyrinth, as some critics claim, but nevertheless The Shape of Water is a wonderful, beguiling romantic fantasy.