Not any movie can make you believe a lady and a frog can fall in love, but “The Shape of Water” does. Thanks to strong writing and direction by Guillermo del Toro, this picture is a stirringly intimate fairy tale and is a powerful and relatable humanistic masterpiece.
At its center is the mute Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a janitor at an aerospace research facility during the 1960s. She goes about her day-to-day life with childlike wonder, but her outward innocence belies her sexual nature, expressed only through her daily masturbation in a bathtub.
Deprived of one of an actor’s most important tools, a voice, Hawkins delivers a purely physical, and instantly likable, performance. Her expressive face and wonderful use of sign language to express emotion contribute immensely to the film’s most euphoric, as well as its most heartbreaking, moments.
Elisa’s ordinary life turns extraordinary when she meets the facility’s latest asset: the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones). This aquatic creature has been captured by the tyrannical Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), and the facility’s scientists believe studying his biology will be essential to breakthroughs in space travel technology.
Jones’ character has a voice, but it is little more than an incomprehensible screech. Instead, Jones and the phenomenal production team combine a physical performance with state-of-the-art costumes and special effects to bring the Amphibian Man to life.
While Strickland can only see how he and the Amphibian Man are different, Elisa sees how she and the creature are the same. She sneaks into his chamber to feed him hard-boiled eggs, play records for him and teach him sign language. In turn, the Amphibian Man does not see Elisa has incomplete — he sees her as she is.
Over time, the two characters develop a friendship that believably evolves into romance. Del Toro uses Elisa’s costumes to symbolize this change, slowly adding more red to her wardrobe until, at the very end of the movie, she’s clothed entirely in it. The boiled eggs Elisa shares with the Amphibian Man come to serve as familiar comforts as the world around the two characters darkens.
On the page, this love story might seem ridiculous — how could a princess and the frog narrative be taken seriously when the princess is supposed to end up with the frog? Del Toro sticks the landing because Elisa and the Amphibian Man are thoughtfully written and cast, and it is actually quite easy to see why both these spirits are drawn together in spite of their differences in species.
Unfortunately, Elisa and the Amphibian Man’s relationship is running out of time: Strickland plans to kill the creature and vivisect him. Before this can happen, Elisa, a fellow janitor, Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer), a closeted commercial artist, Giles (Richard Jenkins), and a scientist, Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), steal him away from the facility. But Strickland is close on their tail, and he threatens to recapture the Amphibian Man before they can bring him to the sea.
Shannon is supremely scary as Strickland. He’s a God-fearing military man who is capable of great violence and cruelty, but he’s not a one-dimensional monster. He wants the promotion and the perks that will come from his contribution to the American space program. He hates the Amphibian Man for being a supposed affront to God.
“The Shape of Water” is empathic to all its characters, the heroes and the villains, and that’s why it is special. It illuminates a world beyond Elisa and the Amphibian Man, showing us the personal lives of each character and lending each of them motivations easy for us to identify with. Del Toro embraces the magic possible in fantasy, but he grounds it in the reality of the human condition.
Runtime: 123 minutes