Overflowing with undeniable magic and artistry, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is one of the best films of the year – one that reminds us of the beauty of love and cinema.
Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, The Shape of Water tells the story of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute janitor working at lab, who falls in love with a fish man ( Doug Jones) being held captive by the American government. Sound a bit strange? Good, because that’s exactly how del Toro wants it.
With films like Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak, and Pacific Rim under his belt, del Toro has defined his career by films full of unique characters and visionary worlds that far outpace his contemporaries. The Shape of Water continues his penchant for fantasy, revealing the great romantic depths of his storytelling ability.
The charm of del Toro’s style is that he presupposes the audience will accept the outlandish elements of his stories. He pushes the limits of the audience’s suspension of disbelief in order to reach more rewarding conclusions. In a more traditional film, the inclusion of an amphibian man would be more than enough. You would expect to see this character treated as either a monster or pet, del Toro, however, pushes the limits and makes the fish man the romantic interest of the film’s protagonist.
Despite the outlandish dynamic of its central characters, The Shape of Water treats the romance with sincerity, developing it as passionately and romantically as a traditional romance. Remarkably little issue is taken with the fact that one half of the couple is part amphibian.
The film eschews saddling Elisa with any shame or guilt over her feelings, instead allowing her to revel in them. Del Toro doesn’t balk when it comes the fish man; the story humanizes, even sexualizes the character, making him more than just an object of Elisa’s fascination, but an active romantic counterpart.
This central romance, shared between a mute and an amphibious man, is the stuff that movies are made for. It’s deeply romantic and fortuitously cinematic. It’s not a coincidence that the characters cannot communicate verbally. Their romance reflects del Toro’s own abiding love for film itself.
Their relationship is based entirely on nonverbal, visual cues. They develop a language all their own, one that allows them to communicate their love to one another without uttering a single word. Contrasted against other characters in the film that use language as a tool for deceit and villainy, the use of nonverbal communication is especially significant.
Nonverbal communication is, of course, the very foundation of cinema as an artistic medium. Film began as a strictly visual medium that relied on visual cues to communicate with the audience. The way in which the romance in The Shape of Water uses these same techniques is enchanting. It adds to the profound emotional and cinematic texture of the story, making moments in the film like Elisa’s decision to break the fish man out of the lab feel like defiant acts of love and bold statements about the power of the medium.
Despite the splendor and strength at the heart of the romance in The Shape of Water, del Toro cannot resist his more violent tendencies. In a series of broad, almost elementary storytelling moves, del Toro connects the Amphibian man to the Cold War and race to space. Both the United States and the U.S.S.R. want to use the fish man to help put man on the moon. Don’t think too hard about the science here (the movie certainly doesn’t) – what matters is that the fish man, and Elisa as a result, be placed in between two violent and competing powers that will stop at nothing to claim ownership and control.
Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), a virulent racist and sexist, represents the American side of this battle. He exerts his power through intimidation and violence, both characteristics that only intensify as he loses control over the course of the film. His violent hold over the fish man triggers Elisa’s decision to break him out of the laboratory, which in turn, leads to Strickland’s chase to get the fish man back.
There is a certain clumsiness, even needlessness, to the way Strickland’s plot operates within the film. It feels torn out of another film, shoehorned in to raise the dramatic stakes. It seems del Toro hopes that the violence will beget greater emotional investment from the audience, but it really only undercuts the emotional strength of the story.
In the end, however, whatever faults lie within The Shape of Water feel rather innocuous given the magical wonder of the world Del Toro has crafted. The remarkable care with which the story is crafted, not to mention told, is undeniable.
Del Toro’s skilled eye for production design coats every inch of the film with a stupefying level of detail; not a single frame feels empty or incomplete. This is to say nothing of the performances, from Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, and Octavia Spencer, that bring an extraordinary balance of humor and empathy. There is an undeniable earnestness that runs throughout these performances that will help sell the film to audiences less familiar with del Toro’s work.
Despite a few weaknesses, the undeniable magic and overwhelming visual and emotional sumptuousness of del Toro’s vision is enough to elevate the film to one of the best of the year.