Guillermo del Toro may know better than any living filmmaker how to create a fantasy with intelligence and maturity. The Shape of Water begins with a dreamscape that would be awkward in lesser hands but feels visionary under del Toro’s touch. The camera glides through a teal green water world, past wavering chairs, lamps and tables, all swirling in the interior of a flooded apartment like a school of fish. Floating amid them, also underwater, is a woman comfortably slumbering on the living room sofa.
As the water slowly drains away, we hear the melancholy voice of the male narrator. “If I told you about her, the Princess Without Voice, what would I say?” Soul-satisfying shots, a lulling introduction to a sleeping beauty; what better way to set the scene for a journey into make-believe?
Like his other films, The Shape of Water never lacks artistry. This dreamlike story is about love and loneliness, and how most of us are probably unfulfilled until we find that special someone who really gets us. All the main characters are shunned by the community in different ways––Elisa (Sally Hawkins) can’t speak, her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) is old and has been unable to live as a gay man, her colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer) is African American, and her new best friend is a childlike, often wild ocean creature who may have been a deity and was apparently worshipped by people in the Amazon.
Jenkins shines as Giles, bringing humor and warmth to the film, while Hawkins blows the character out of the water in a galvanizing performance that balances both strength and vulnerability. She is a mute woman living a tidy, orderly, and sheltered life in early 1960s Baltimore. She lives alone but enjoys close relationships with a handful of friends.
Guillermo del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor use the character of Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) to demonstrate whose opinion counted the most during that period–the straight, white male. At one point, Strickland, who is the villain, even tells Zelda that God probably looked like him rather than her during a conversation in his office.
The writers have carved quite an exquisite little gem. Of course, del Toro being del Toro, his tale also contains clusters of eroticism and violence. Elisa and her handsome aquatic friend not only make impassioned love, they are an effective team and communicate better than the speaking characters do. The orgasmic moments are charming, not lewd, and the moments of gore are precisely crafted to advance the story, not provide shock value (though they do).
Ultimately, del Toro wants us to know that we don’t need words to express how we feel and love can conquer everything. The story is helped by the world that is created by del Toro through the visuals, costumes, and location. The vibrant greens and deep reds help bring the story to life. The film also uses practical effects rather than CGI with the creature played by Doug Jones.
The Shape of Water builds to a buoyant liquid finale that echoes the weightless opening. Fitting for a film that sends you away with your feet off the ground. It’s an unforgettably romantic, utterly sublime, dazzling phantasmagoria.