The Shape of Water, playing at Images Cinema until Feb. 2, is a fairytale drama-romance set in the cynical Cold War 1960s, written and directed by Guillermo del Toro. Already, the film has garnered numerous awards and nominations, including the Golden Globe Award for Best Director, and it is not surprising why.
Sally Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito, the film’s main protagonist. Elisa is mute and thus communicates through sign language. She works the night shift as a janitor at a government laboratory. Her friends include her neighbor Giles and coworker Zelda, respectively played by Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer, who encounter their own forms of persecution in 1960s Baltimore: Giles is a closeted homosexual, and Zelda is a black woman.
At work, Elisa befriends and ultimately falls in love with an intelligent, aquatic humanoid captured by Colonel Richard Strickland, played by Michael Shannon, from a South American river. Upon learning that the government plans on killing the creature, Elisa works with her two friends, as well as scientist and double agent Hoffstetler, to rescue him from the lab and release him into the canal, the setting for the final showdown between Strickland, Elisa and the creature. Strickland shoots them both, and if this were not a del Toro movie, the audience might be fooled into believing they are dead. Fortunately, the fish creature heals himself and slashes Strickland’s throat. He then revives Elisa, turning the scars on her neck into gills. The two jump into the canal and live happily ever after.
Del Toro is a great director but an even better storyteller. Both qualities come through in the kindness and sympathy with which he handles his protagonists while simultaneously remaining forceful in denouncing those in power.
The Shape of Water is not a call to action, nor does it aim to shock by indulging in cruelty. Del Toro’s characters, oppressed and persecuted by society as they are, are portrayed with dignity. Sally Hawkins is vivacious and expressive as the lead heroine, fully compensating for her character’s lack of dialogue, and then some. Zelda is similarly plucky, smoking cigarettes at work where the security cameras cannot see her. Del Toro celebrates their alternative forms of happiness, love and humor, never once lowering to condescension.
The film is sympathetic towards Strickland, the all-American antagonist, but only to a degree. The audience understands that Strickland has gotten somewhat lost in the pursuit of the American Dream; in a different movie by a different director, he may very well have been elevated as the white patriarchal hero defending home and country. In The Shape of Water, however, he is held accountable for his crimes, and the film is swift to administer a Brothers Grimm-esque final judgment for his misdeeds – gruesome, maybe, but satisfyingly righteous. It is the perfect dose of schadenfreude for an audience tired of witnessing numerous abuses of power from our current world leaders.
Water is the perfect metaphor for the forms of love explored in the film – shaped by circumstances, but multiform and endowed with transformative power. Del Toro lays on the symbolism; the film begins and ends with an underwater shot. In between, water appears in the form of rain, Elisa’s daily bath and even in her calendar as a quote. While jarring at first, the references eventually become ubiquitous and are quietly absorbed into the rhythm of the film.
The Shape of Water is classic del Toro, featuring his signature repertoire of fantasy settings and creatures juxtaposed with always-relevant social commentary. What it lacks in innovation, The Shape of Water makes up for with its effusive sense of kindness, for its characters as well as its audience.