REVIEW: ‘The Shape of Water’ is a gorgeous and mature Cold War fairy tale

Sally Hawkins as Elisa and Octavia Spencer as Zelda in  The Shape of Water , directed by Guillermo del Toro.

Sally Hawkins as Elisa and Octavia Spencer as Zelda in The Shape of Water, directed by Guillermo del Toro.

Movies tend to be friendly to outcasts. The medium offers a chance for characters who would otherwise be ignored or ridiculed to get an advantage over those who represent the status quo. You see it in every genre: studio comedies, award-worthy dramas, superhero tentpoles. When outcast characters achieve justice or gain acceptance or fall in love, we cheer it on.

When writer-director Guillermo del Toro brought his new film The Shape of Water to the Toronto International Film Festival this year, he reminded the audience after a screening that the world beyond the screen is full of outcasts, people who are marginalized for countless reasons: sexuality, disability, physical appearance and more. As a filmmaker, Del Toro felt an obligation to make a film that featured characters who fit these descriptions, but aren’t defined by them, or held back from being complete people. More specifically, he wanted his heroine, who’s been mute since birth, to have clearly depicted sexual desires. And if she happens to fall in love with a humanoid fish-man, she should be able to pursue that attraction to its furthest extent.

The Shape of Water is set somewhere in the Northeastern U.S. during the height of the Cold War. Elisa (Sally Hawkins) works as a night cleaner at a secret military facility, where one day she and her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) are called in to mop up blood spilled in a containment area. Elisa soon discovers that her employers, led by the reptilian Strickland (Michael Shannon) have captured a creature from the Amazon, a human-shaped aquatic being, and are trying to study it to get an advantage over the Soviet Union.

The anonymous creature is played by frequent Del Toro collaborator Doug Jones.

The anonymous creature is played by frequent Del Toro collaborator Doug Jones.

Elisa sees that the creature is being tortured by Strickland and his cronies, so she begins to sneak into the room when the G-men leave for the night to feed the creature boiled eggs and play music for him. And over time, she falls in love with the creature, because she feels that he’s the only one who accepts her as a complete person, since he doesn’t know that she can’t speak, that she isn’t whole. However, their relationship is endangered by Strickland, who is compelled by his superiors to schedule the creature for dissection. Elisa must then conspire with her worrywart neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) and Zelda to spirit the creature out of the facility and back to the ocean.

Importantly, even though the film opens with voiceover from Giles that describes Elisa as a “princess”, she isn’t shown to be a Disneyfied, chaste character. Del Toro isn’t afraid to include a sex scene between Elisa and the creature, and is even flexible enough to joke about it in a hilarious interaction between Elisa and Zelda that takes place the day after. But it’s still a risk, because some viewers may immediately classify the scene as a form of bestiality or a reference to similar, but less tasteful, material in Japanese manga and anime.

But Del Toro isn’t taking the risk for shock value. He wants to stage an adult relationship, and explore what it really looks like for two outcasts, even ones from different (or fantastical) species, to fall in love. In an age when historically marginalized people are slowly finding it easier to express themselves and be comfortable in their own skins, The Shape of Water feels incredibly timely - even though it’s set decades in the past.

Michael Shannon as the villainous Strickland.

Michael Shannon as the villainous Strickland.

As part of Del Toro’s filmography, this new film also feels like an important step. The filmmaker has long enjoyed a lot of geek cred for his Hellboy movies and Pacific Rim, as well as the admiration of the art house crowd for his Spanish-language releases like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. But The Shape of Water, perhaps due to its focus on an intimate relationship (and how it contrasts with the romance sought by Strickland or Giles), is notable for how it doesn’t put the fantasy elements front and centre, instead incorporating them very subtly. In this way, it may offer the most mainstream appeal of any of Del Toro’s works, in the best possible way.

This isn’t to say that Del Toro’s signature visual style takes a backseat. Working with an all-Canadian team (bonus!), the filmmaker conjures beautiful locations to host his story, chief among them the apartment building where Elisa and Giles live. Sharing a massive semi-circular window, Elisa and Giles’ units are modelled to reflect their half-fulfilled lives, subtly reminding viewers how dependent they are on each other. The creature design is another feat: it borrows shapes and lines from familiar B-movie denizens, but also feels entirely original (if a little overpowered).

Del Toro never shirks with his casts, either. Sally Hawkins is already generating Oscar buzz for her work as Elisa, Octavia Spencer makes for a brilliant partner in crime, and somehow Shannon digs into new reserves of ruthlessness to play Strickland. And who can say no to more top-notch character acting from Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg or Del Toro’s long-time creature-effects performer Doug Jones?

Above all, there’s a warmth and tenderness in the film that’s particularly pronounced, maybe more so than the director’s earlier films. It’s a movie in love with the classic films that preceded it, with literature, with music.

Most of all, it’s in love with the idea of love, in its many weird and wonderful forms. Fairy tales have long been used for moralistic means, and the movie fits that bill; the relationship between Elisa and the creature can stand in for any real-world pairing that breaks the traditional mould. That sort of representation (albeit through a fantastical lens) is still a hard-won goal these days, and the movie makes you want more.

The Shape of Water gets four stars out of four.

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Stray thoughts

  • I saw this film at TIFF inside the same old-school movie palace that Del Toro uses as a location in the movie - hard to get more immersive than that!
  • Has anyone attempted a shared-universe theory for Del Toro films? The only one that seems hard to fit with the others is Pacific Rim (and maybe Blade II).