If it’s true that every culture gets the fairytales it deserves, it’s hard to see what we’ve done lately to merit anything as lovely as Guillermo del Toro‘s “The Shape of Water.” It’s a Cold War paranoia thriller, a 1950s-style creature feature, a quasi-musical cinematic nostalgia trip and a fantasy interspecies love story between a woman and a merman, so brimming with romance and adventure that its effect overflows the screen, filling up rooms and flooding the cinema and threatening to leak through to the floor below. It is the greatest showcase for del Toro’s mercurial, dark-tinged but delightful sensibilities, and his best film since “Pan’s Labyrinth.” It perhaps even equals it, though let’s give time its chance to tell on that.
The human half of the romance is Eliza, played by Sally Hawkins forever now surely the ur-del Toro heroine, part elf, part dowd, part marionette with joints bigger than her slender bones and features bigger than her face: huge dark eyes, sharp cheekbones and ginormous lighthouse smile. Eliza is an orphan who doesn’t speak (though Hawkins is so perfectly expressive you kind of forget that) and lives a life of routine. She even practices her morning bath time self-pleasuring ritual to the ticking of a mechanical timer while eggs boil away on the stove — the film’s lack of prudishness around sex, physicality, bodily functions and fleshy violence grounds its whimsy in the real, and can also be very funny. Finally, a movie that unapologetically confronts the basic question we’d all ask of a sex act between a human and a merman/monster/demigod. “Why?” queries her friend Zelda (an indispensable Octavia Spencer) in horror when she divines that Eliza has consummated the relationship. Then, eyes widening, “How?”
Del Toro’s generous, characterful script has plenty of time for Eliza’s friends. Her neighbor Giles (the eternally wonderful Richard Jenkins) is a gay advertising illustrator recently laid off from his job, who has a unrequited crush on the server in a nearby pie restaurant and a television on which he and Eliza watch old black and white musicals with Betty Grable, Shirley Temple and the like. Zelda works with Eliza at her cleaning job and fills a lot of her silences with an acerbic running commentary on men, marriage (“If farts were flattery,” she says of her wastrel husband, “he’d be Shakespeare”) and what-the-hell-are-they-doing-in-this-place? The place in question is a governmental aeronautics research company, wittily named Occam, because in the baroque world of Guillermo del Toro’s elaborate, complex, intricate creation, of course Occam’s razor — the idea that the simplest solution is usually the best — would be the enemy.
At Occam, Eliza happens to glimpse the new “asset” brought in by the dastardly Strickland (Michael Shannon, at times attaining a tsunami-level of terrifying that would make Zod kneel), to be examined by Dr. Hoffstetler (a furtively soulful Michael Stuhlbarg), who unbeknownst to everyone, is a Russian spy. The asset is a six-foot tall merman of sorts (Doug Jones), resembling a blue-green Creature from the Black Lagoon with bright, curious eyes flickering beneath nictitating membranes. Soon Eliza is sneaking in every chance she gets to bring him boiled eggs and play him music and teach him to communicate, something none of the men in charge have ever thought to do. To Eliza, he’s a lonely, mute creature like herself, one who “doesn’t see what I lack, doesn’t see that I am incomplete” as she signs to Giles in an impassioned moment. But to Strickland, he’s an abomination, and Strickland should know about such things; he’s so thoroughly vile that even his own reattached fingers, bitten off by the creature during a fracas, reject their host body.
There is unmistakable, idiosyncratic care poured into every frame of “The Shape of Water,” saturated with del Toro’s offbeat compassion and looping, pattern-recognition intelligence. Under the tidal swells and sighs of Alexandre Desplat‘s emotive, restive score, motifs recur and DP Dan Laustsen‘s striking images often refer back to earlier shots, with an insouciant, incidental ease that could only feel so effortless in such a meticulously considered world. At one point a character is dragged away by a bullet hole in his cheek like he’s snagged on a hook, gasping for air, his glasses glinting like a fish’s unblinking eyes. At another, Strickland makes a nasty speech, embodying the racism and sexism of the time, in which he compares himself to God, which is then given a sly backwards nod by his drily perfect last line. And water is everywhere, in raindrops, bathtubs, boiling pans and mop buckets that sluice blood away into drains.
And despite the period, the fantasy elements, and the escapist joy of its swoony love story, “The Shape of Water” is topical and political in ways too marked to be mistaken. A race riot is briefly glimpsed on television; later Strickland refers to the souped-up cattle rod he uses to subdue the creature as his “Alabama how-de-do.” A character’s racism and homophobia are both exposed in a single fleeting scene, one that is not strictly necessary for the narrative, but that pointedly draws a line of solidarity between all the oppressed and outcast minorities from which del Toro draws his pool of heroes. And even small reactions, like the bully Strickland whingeing that he “can’t be in a negative frame of mind right now” feels like it’s informed by phenomena we see every day now, as alpha bullies turn into wheedling snowflakes when things start not to go their way. As much as it’s a call for unity across an ostensible division, “The Shape of Water” also knows there are enemies within the ranks, and that they need to be confronted and resisted.
But as much as it has on its mind, it has even more in its happy-sad, brave and quiet heart. Without a single weak link in the exceptional cast (Hawkins would deserve awards recognition if all she did was that one, unmistakably post-coital smile of carnal satisfaction in her lover’s scaly embrace), it’s a film that makes you feel a lot. But overridingly you feel lucky — lucky to be watching it, lucky that something so sincerely sweet, sorrowfully scary and surpassingly strange can exist in this un-wonderful world, and desirous of hanging on to as much of its magic for as long as you can after you reemerge back onto dry land. [A]