Review: 'Shape of Water' is Guillermo del Toro's enchanting fish-man fairytale

Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer

Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Shape of Water is many things: a creature feature, a Cold War thriller, and above all else, an enchanting mid-century fairytale.

While the idea of a woman falling for a magical fish man may seem bizarre at first blush (not to mention sexually disturbing), we quickly settle into the fantastic story that director Guillermo del Toro crafts here. After all, in a narrative tradition teeming with frog-kissing, beauties, beasts, and the like, is this really any weirder than your classic folk tale?

It’s the early 1960s. Sally Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito, a janitor in a military facility who lost her ability to speak at a young age. Her life is one of routine: She wakes up, hard boils some eggs, masturbates in the bathtub, and takes the bus to work. She enjoys watching old movies with her neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), a down-on-his-luck artist who’s trying to get his old ad agency to buy some work.

One day while Elisa and her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) are cleaning up at the facility, a suit-and-tie by the name of Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) shows up with some odd cargo. Elisa discovers the aforementioned Amphibious Man (Doug Jones) and soon thereafter falls in love.

Given the inhuman discovery at the center of this movie, del Toro certainly could have opted for a massive scope. Instead, he focuses on smaller details. Though we get elements of a Cold War backdrop and bigger forces at work, this narrowed vision allows for the exploration of more intimate themes.

The Shape of Water ponders love, friendship, otherness—contrasting the sweetness of something bizarre and ostensibly wrong with the superficial “correctness” of traditional American life. Government goon Strickland has kids and a wife, the latter of whom he silences mid-coitus with an increasingly necrotic hand. Zelda cooks dinner after a long day mopping, and her husband can’t so much as get out of his chair to answer the door.

Meanwhile, Elisa feels marginalized because of her inability to speak, and Giles finds himself getting booted from a “family restaurant” because he’s gay.

Del Toro’s juxtapositions are simple but effective. And the cast’s fleshing out of such measured beats takes this movie beyond its script. Hawkins conveys so much without saying a word, and her real-life sign language undertaking is impressive.

Shannon is phenomenal as always in what could have been a pretty two-dimensional role. He’s the kind of person whose sinisterness is rooted in a conviction of his own rightness, and that makes him all the more terrifying.

Del Toro also pulls off a deft trick with the character of Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a scientist and Russian mole whose actions dissolve broader allegiances to highlight the unimportance of nationality when it comes to matters of right and wrong, the different and those who would seek to destroy them.

The Shape of Water does have a rather flat tone, so for some the stakes may not pay off—though anything showier may have detracted from the tenderness present. What we have here is a delicate tale, and del Toro treats it with clever direction and a soft touch.

The Shape of Water
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon
Rated: R
Theater: Now showing, area theaters