The fertile imagination of Guillermo del Toro has cross-pollinated sources before, but never so expansively as in The Shape of Water, a shimmering hybrid of City Lights, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Starman, with trace elements of Splash and the wartime musicals of Alice Faye. Through sheer movie-drunk bravado, he pulls it off, with space-age-through-the-Hollywood-looking-glass élan that saves the end product from inspiration-Frankenstein syndrome and lends it an identity all its own.
Like the director’s best works (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone), The Shape of Water embraces lonely outcasts, chimerical beings, and meticulous design, set against a politically turbulent mid-20th-century canvas. Our heroine, we’re told by the film’s narration (Richard Jenkins’s plainspoken delivery nicely grounding the fairy-tale prose), is “the princess with no voice”—Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a scarred orphan grown into a mute but irrepressibly optimistic janitor at a top-secret cold war–era government lab. Together with her chatterbox colleague, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), Elisa discovers the facility’s new acquisition: a prodigious aquaman (played by Doug Jones, erstwhile Pan of the Labyrinth) who resembles the poster of a ’50s creature feature—and who reveals a gentle nature under Elisa’s ministrations. Naturally, a government agent, Strickland (Michael Shannon), seeks to quell any threat real or imagined by eliminating the “asset.”
Shannon’s casting may seem overly intuitive (a square-jawed period cop obsessed with sin and salvation, not many miles removed from his Nelson Van Alden on Boardwalk Empire), but there’s a reason he’s the go-to guy for psychos in fedoras. With his ever-present hard candy and rhapsodies over his weapon, Shannon suggests both sadistic, fly-swatting boyhood and the threatened masculinity of Mad Men’s late seasons. In counterpoint, as Elisa’s closeted neighbor, Giles, who paints Norman Rockwellian ads for Jell-O that brim with the warm companionship his empty life lacks, Jenkins evokes a casualty of a repressive era as touching and compelling as Hawkins’s.
Without benefit of speech, the incomparable leading lady achieves the near-impossible: she makes her wounded heroine both wide-eyed and tenacious (and unexpectedly carnal), so when her friendship with the piscine stranger evolves into romance, snickers give way to cheers. With clownish poignancy that can’t help but invite comparisons to Chaplin and Giulietta Masina (and in a perfectly timed musical interlude, Ginger Rogers), Hawkins adds a flinty self-determination that saves Elisa from tipping over into waifish caricature (this mere months after playing a different kind of unwilling victim in a patriarchal society, in Maudie).
Most astonishing is the film’s vision, rendered without a whiff of sententiousness, of a voiceless gamine, a gay artist, and a middle-aged black woman taking a unified stand for tolerance in 1962. Pariahs Elisa and Zelda see the scaly outsider as “beautiful,” while establishment vigilante Strickland sees him as “ugly as sin” and can’t acknowledge his humanity. This would appear to be grist for the sermon mill, but del Toro’s light touch (a welcome rebound from the gothic ponderousness of his last effort, Crimson Peak) and his screenplay with Vanessa Taylor (filled with welcome conversational peculiarities) leaven the dough with vibrant humor and rich characterization. Their efforts are aided immensely by Alexandre Desplat’s robust score, and by Danish DP Dan Laustsen, who conjures the entire Kennedy era with varying shades of green (manifest in the bathroom tiles, the asset himself, and the teal Cadillac that Strickland buys himself when a salesman brands it “the car of the future”).
There are times when Tinseltown signifiers threaten to commandeer the story (the theme music from A Summer Place plays on the PA system as Strickland visits the Caddy dealership), but just as Elisa lives above a movie palace that seems to specialize in revivals, del Toro situates his fantasia in a mental space just north of Hollywood and just east of yesteryear, resulting in a movie that’s not about movies per se but about the ways in which people with popcorn butter in their veins can endeavor to make their lives just a bit more cinematic. Like the mutable shape of water, the world of the movie maven is whatever she wants it to be.
Steven Mears received his MA in film from Columbia University, where he wrote a thesis on depictions of old age in American cinema.