By Micah Walker
When I think of fairy tale movies, the first things that usually come to mind are Disney classics, like Cinderella or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Both heroines live a quiet existence until a stranger appears in their lives, or in Snow White’s case, seven. Cinderella’s evil stepmother and stepsister, as well as the evil queen, try to prevent the women from experiencing happiness in their lives, but Cinderella and Snow ultimately ride off into the sunset with their Prince Charmings. The results of these films are romantic, whimsical, and at times, dark.
The Shape of Water has all of these characteristics and more, only in a more adult form. The Guillermo del Toro tale features one of the oddest love stories I have seen on screen yet, but is also one of the brightest gems of this year’s awards season.
The film follows Elisa, (played by an outstanding Sally Hawkins), a mute woman in 1962 Baltimore. She works as a nighttime janitor at a secret government lab with her friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). One day, a mysterious, fish-like creature, (Doug Jones), is brought to the facility for research. While the monster’s body is covered in blue-green scales, he is also human-like, with his four limbs and slender build. Elisa instantly becomes curious about the lab’s newest addition, sneaking off on her work breaks to play jazz records and bring boiled eggs to the creature.
Meanwhile, “the asset,” as workers in the lab call him, is being studied by Dr. Hoffstetler, played by Michael Stuhlbarg. At a time where the Cold War was at its peak, the scientist is also a Russian spy in his free time, sharing his findings with powerful men from the Soviet Union.
While Hoffstetler may be trading secrets with the enemy, his superior, Richard Strickland, is way scarier, played by a menacing Michael Shannon. Strickland was the one who captured the fish man in the Amazon and brought him to the lab, but lets his scientists do all of the observing. He is portrayed as the sole “All-American Man” in the film, as he has a wife, two children, a nice split-level house, and drives a Cadillac. You do not want to get on Strickland’s bad side, though, as he is quick to pull out his favorite accessory, an electric cattle prod.
Another person in Elisa’s world is Giles (Richard Jenkins), a close friend who lives next door in their apartment building. A struggling artist, Giles attempts to pitch his creations to an advertising agency to no avail. He also faces troubles in his personal life as a closeted gay man.
Director and writer Guillermo del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor juggle a lot of material in The Shaper of Water, but the finished product manages to tie everything together without feeling overstuffed. Even though the love story between Elisa and the fish man is the main focus, all of the supporting players each have their own chances to shine.
Not only does del Toro masterfully handle the various subplots, but he also seamlessly blends genres that don’t normally go together without a hitch. One minute, The Shape of Water is a monster movie in the form of the film’s biggest influence, Creature From the Black Lagoon, a 1950s film about a fish man discovered in the Amazon rainforest. The next, it’s a whimsical comedy in the tone of Amelie. The rest of the time, it’s a fairy tale romance similar to Beauty and the Beast. The film even pays homage to Old Hollywood, complete with a black and white musical number.
Hawkins adds to the film’s charm. Like what Audrey Tautou did for Amelie, Hawkins plays Elisa with a quiet elegance. The heroine is an innocent, yet self-aware woman who knows she will forever be an outsider in a world where verbal communication rules over nonverbal. Since Elisa cannot speak, Hawkins conveys what the character is saying and feeling through sign language and facial expressions. Pulling off a non-speaking role is no small feat, and Hawkins does it to great effect. Her quiet moments with the fish man are endearing and romantic, showing that you don’t always need words to understand what the other person is communicating.
Spencer gives a great performance as Zelda. While I wish she had more screen time, Spencer does well with the material she is given. She plays Zelda as a dedicated friend who will always be there for Elisa, even when she falls in love with a sea creature. While most of Spencer’s scenes consist of her interacting with Hawkins, she does have a compelling scene when Strickland makes an appearance at Zelda’s home.
Jenkins’ performance is also engaging. His role is heartbreaking, as Giles is a man that wants to find a love of his own, but can’t, because his sexuality is still seen as a mental disorder.
While audiences may be hesitant to see a film about an interspecies romance, del Toro does a good job of making sure the love story is magical and otherworldly rather than strange. The Shape of Water is an enchanting fairy tale that will stay with you long after leaving the theater.