Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a childhood accident having left her mute, works as a custodian in a government facility that harbors top secret initiatives designed to outpace the Russians in the festering space race. Elisa mops floors and cleans toilets, side by side with her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), as figures in white lab coats scurry about the dank, damp corridors.
The Russians, for their part, are less interested in learning ways to beat the Americans into space as they are ensuring the Americans don't learn ways in which to beat them. Enter their interest in the mysterious Amphibian Man (Doug Jones); wheeled unceremoniously into one of the labs, accompanied by its captor, Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon).
The unlikely attraction between Elisa and the Amphibian Man is significant given the era in which the film is set. Racism and misogyny existed like an open sore on humanity in the early 60's. Certainly, parallels to modern times can easily be made.
This, of course, makes the themes of the film all the more poignant. The burgeoning romantic connection that Elisa shares with the Amphibian Man is symbolic of mixed race relationships and the stigma that accompanies them.
What transpires between them over the course of the film is equal parts awkward and beautiful, humorous and heartfelt. Literally a fish out of water fairy tale, it's hard to brush off the enchantment, thanks in no small part to the ferocious talent of Sally Hawkins.
The manner in which Ms. Hawkins throws herself into the romanticism of the film is pure and award worthy. Her love for the Amphibian Man grows from childlike curiosity into unrequited passion in such a genuine way. As bizarre as it all is, it's impossible to root against. Early on, a narrator positions Elisa's story as that of a princess, and that feels right. Cinderella, Belle, and other Disney royalty have influence on this story.
That said, Mr. Shannon's Col. Strickland leers as the villain here. Strickland is almost mechanical in personality, spewing racist and misogynist innuendo without pause, his bulking frame an intimidating presence. Mr. Shannon certainly needs no prodding to sufficiently portray fearsome and loathsome, but Mr. Del Toro layers on characteristics that definitely enhance his persona.
The Russians also have some skin in this cat and mouse game. Insider spy, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) has secretly been feeding secrets to the motherland, and now finds himself torn between allegiances. As a scientist, Hoffstetler recoils against destroying the creature, and aids Elisa in freeing him from captivity.
The film could have easily gone off course here, but Mr. Del Toro is sure footed at all times. This is fantasy after all, and fantasy doesn't always have to play within the rules of logic. Frankly, it's better off not trying to do so. The best fairy tales color outside the lines of rational thought. Sometimes, the carriage just needs to turn into a pumpkin at Midnight. The result is often pure cinematic magic. The Shape of Water oozes that magic.
One scene in particular, involving running water and a few strategically placed towels, stands out in ways both intoxicatingly beautiful and as an unselfish gesture between two characters. Best discovered spoiler free, suffice it to say that awkward never looked this beautiful before.
Layered on is Alexandre Desplat's playful score, keeping tempo with each inspired moment of enchantment. There is charm and whimsy which enhances the fantasy-like atmosphere; sometimes crescendoing with an impromptu black and white, golden age dance number, or tip-toeing along with the perky Elisa down a hard wood hallway.
I've always been luke warm on Guillermo Del Toro's filmography, but The Shape of Water is far and away my favorite film of his. Undoubtedly a master at visual storytelling, The Shape of Water adds the narrative heart I've often felt his other works have lacked. The love story at its core is nothing short of cinematic delight that will leave you enthusiastically drenched in its whimsical magic.
5 out of 5