What people should know about Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water is that it’s a very, very romantic film. To all the hopeless romantics out there: hold on to your hats. This histoire d’amour between a mute cleaning lady and an amphibian creature covered in scales is going to make your heart soar till it aches.
Right off the bat, there’s no mistaking the enchanted fairytale quality of the storytelling. The camera leads us into a sunken world of floating objects and hushed, emerald-colored dreams. In the background, the sound of French accordion rises and falls to a most beautiful tune (more on Alexandre Desplat’s Oscar-caliber creation later) so beguiling you’re immediately taken out of the realm of reality. Even as we meet our voiceless heroine Elisa (Sally Hawkins), who works on the cleaning staff of a US space agency during the Cold War, the whimsical, compulsively animated montage à la Amélie only reinforces the surrealist tone of the picture.
One day at work, a shadowy figure named Strickland (Michael Shannon) escorts to the agency a large water tank carrying the most sensitive “asset” of the US government soon revealed to be fish-man hybrid with dual breathing systems. A specialist (Michael Stuhlbarg) is brought in to work on a human conversion for astronauts, while Elisa and her fellow staff member Zelda (Octavia Spencer) also meet the intimidating creature at a clean-up operation. Seeing in him a kindred spirit trapped in an undesirable body, Elisa sets out to free this alien being with the help of Zelda and her Giles (Richard Jenkins).
Plot-wise The Shape of Water is essentially structured like a familiar heist movie, with all the expected breakthroughs and hiccups. It’s effective, gets the momentum going, but loses steam in the second half as you realize it’s probably not going to end up any place surprising. The Cold War setting and a double-agent back story concerning Stuhlbarg’s character are not woven into the central narrative with notable finesse. Even the romance itself isn’t necessarily powered by the way the story unfolds, as the description of cross-species communication, friendship and attraction may seem – to a reasonable mind at least – a little over-simplified.
With all that said, it’s exactly this bold and merciful willingness of Del Toro and his team to leave reason behind that lights up the film with magic. It’s the earnest belief that someone will look into your eyes and finally see you for who you are, the near-naive trust that words are not needed to connect and fall in love, the child-like abandonment with which to turn a moment of amorous bliss into a full-blown black-and-white musical number. The Shape of Water lives and breathes such defiant romanticism it’s hard not to swoon.
Is it consistently compelling, masterfully plotted or remarkably original? Perhaps not. But let’s be real here. When a movie boasts a cast that includes Hawkins, Spencer, Jenkins, Shanon and Stuhlbarg, it’s a literal impossibility to find it unlikable. First of all, what a joy it is to see Hawkins as leading lady carrying a major Hollywood blockbuster. Ever the skilled, soulful performer,she nails a role that requires both vulnerability and a quiet, graceful conviction. In the scene where she tries to enlist the help of Jenkins’ character, she gives a speech with hand gestures and a naked urgency in her expressions that will resonate with anyone who’s ever felt lonely. The supporting cast is equally strong, especially Spencer, whose unerring comedic timing is a constant source of delight, and Shannon, who plays a racist, sadistic, misogynistic pig with steely precision.
Technical details are, as one has come to expect from a Del Toro film, uniformly excellent. Dan Laustsen’s cinematography and Nigel Churcher’s art direction, both bona-fide Oscar contenders, dazzle the eye with intoxicating hues and a heightened, dreamy vibrancy. If there’s one stand-out, however, it’s probably the aforementioned score by Desplat. The striking main theme carries at once notes of mystery, awe and tenderness. With one sudden dip in melody it can send you dropping down from giddy anticipations to the depths of lovesick solitude. Incredibly evocative work.