Set in early 1960s Baltimore, Maryland, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape Of Water is a charming fairy tale about outsiders and the need for love and family everyone has. His own love of cinema permeates the film.
Elisa (Sally Hawkins) works as a janitor at a U.S. government facility alongside her African American friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer). She was found by a river as a child and is mute, likely a result of the scars on her neck. Elisa lives in an apartment above a movie theater as does her homosexual neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins). Although there are captions to translate her sign language, both Zelda and Giles serves as interpreters for her and to the audience. Giles also is the narrator.
One evening while at Elisa’s work, Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) brings in an amphibious creature (played marvelously by Doug Jones wearing a suit) from the Amazon. Elisa, realizing its intelligence, forms a bond with the Creature, feeding it hard-boiled eggs and teaching it sign language However, Strickland thinks the Creature is simply a dumb animal. The military wants to see if the Creature can be of use in the space race, so Strickland suggests vivisection. The Soviets naturally have an interest in what the Americans are up to so they have a spy working inside the facility, Dimitri Mosenkov (Michael Stuhlbarg). They want him to destroy the Creature to keep the Americans from learning anything.
When Elisa learns of the Creature’s plight, she, with the help of her friends, extract the Creature and hide it at her apartment until the tide in the canal rises when it can be released. While there, the relationship between Elisa and the Creature grows more intense, as does the search by Strickland, who will stop at nothing to recover it as his career is on the line.
At the heart of The Shape of Water is the genuineness of the characters. They seem like authentic people, which makes the viewer care for their plights. Elisa’s love for the Creature is believable as we see them together. Giles is struggling after losing his job and unable to find love, which is complicated by society’s attitudes of the era. Dimitri is understandably torn between serving his country and doing the right thing for the Creature. Strickland is an exception because the script by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor makes him a cartoonish villain, from his treatment of the the Creature to his sexual pursuit of Elisa, which diminishes the stakes of the plot. He needed better motivation for his character beyond being the bad guy.
The film looks fantastic. Del Toro and his production team have done marvelous work creating the sets, which all look realistic. Clearly influenced by the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Creature’s costume is an impressive piece of work. Alexandre Desplat’s score evokes Classic Hollywood, and some of the films the characters watch are reflections on their state of mind.
Albeit an unusual love story, The Shape of Water is del Toro’s most accessible film. Aside from the Creature, his usual use of horror and fantastique elements have been stripped away, resulting in characters that are easy for viewers to identify with. Although this is del Toro’s 10th feature, it’s a great entry point into his filmography.