In aqua-toned splendor, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water emerges as an eccentric, sci-fi fairy tale that amplifies the voices of those who are seldom heard. Sally Hawkins stars as Elisa Esposito, a mute cleaning woman who lives a humdrum life. Her best friends are Giles (Richard Jenkins), a struggling advertisement artist, and Zelda, an African American coworker (Octavia Spencer). Elisa befriends the Amphibian Man at the lab where she works, and soon, a romance blooms between them. They fall in love. Without speaking a word (though she does sign), Hawkins expresses so many emotions—of joy, pleasure, indignation, sorrow—with effortless brio.
The premise of a woman falling in love with a sea creature might raise eyebrows but the lush visual artistry and heartfelt story in the film will at least momentarily disarm even the greatest skeptics. When you watch this film, the thing that’ll get you is how much love you feel in the storytelling. del Toro and his team put in so much care in everything—the VFX that brought Doug Jones’ Amphibian Man to life, the gorgeous blue and green hues, the intensity of Sally Hawkins’ wordless performance. And the mechanics of the storytelling is matched with a morally clear message about being receptive to and understanding those who are different from us.
It’s been criticized as overly garish and condescending. I suppose there are moments in the film that do have a prim Disney-esque perfection with that very light whimsical, raunchy touch of Amelie. There are clear-cut bad guys, it parses out this sculpture of simple morality. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, though it might not be everyone’s cup of tea. In these dark times in America’s political history, it helps to know what we’re fighting for at the end of the day. In the age of the anti-hero, we lean towards humanizing ostensibly evil villains. But I think there’s value in breaking down and understanding the forces that bring out the darkness in people, and we certainly see del Toro do that with Colonel Strickland, the nefarious villain brought to life with verve by Michael Shannon.
I’ll admit, there were times when I felt like the writers could’ve dug deeper—it’s implied that Richard Jenkin’s character is gay but the writers don’t delve much into how that impacts him. We also don’t really know much about Zelda, who’s a Black woman and the sole breadwinner of her household. These oversights could easily be misconstrued as using these nuanced identities as means of moving the plot forward. It’s a valid criticism of the film, and it’s one that can take away from your experience.
At the end of the day, though, The Shape of Water played with my heartstrings. The love story, which is really a story about being unconditionally accepted for who you are, will warm even the coldest hearts. This highly imaginative film deserves all of the critical acclaims that it has received, and definitely at least one watch. Would I have loved for Get Out to win the Academy Award for Best Picture? Yeah. But now that I’ve finally watched de Toro’s gorgeous film, I’m not that mad about it winning.