Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water opens with a meandering voiceover by Giles (Richard Jenkins), who saw it all, and wonders, “If I spoke about it… if I did… what would I tell you?” So from the jump, he’s telling us a bedtime story, complete with a “princess with no voice” and a “monster who tried to destroy it all” – put simply, it’s a fairy tale for grownups. (And the last caveat of that is important; it does include a fully nude bathtub masturbation scene in the first ten minutes. But set to whimsical music!) Early on, Giles tells the story’s heroine, Eliza (Sally Hawkins) about a nearby chocolate factory fire, which he describes as “tragedy and delight, hand in hand.” And frankly, that’s a pretty accurate summary of the movie too.
The setting is a government laboratory, circa 1962, where our mute Eliza mops floors alongside pal Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who talks enough for both of them. Eliza goes about her day with a smile – but it’s definitely the same day, every day, until the arrival of “the most sensitive asset ever to be housed in this activity”: a Creature from the Black Lagoon-style man/fish mash-up, held against its will and none too happy about it. We see what damage he can inflict before we even see him, so there’s danger running beneath his initial interactions with Eliza, but soon enough they develop some affection, and she decides she must save him, no matter the cost.
With the help of her friends, Eliza attempt to extract him, in something akin to a heist sequence, and a good one – taut, suspenseful, ingenious. It’s not a clockwork operation (these aren’t pros), so we’re all the more invested in their mission, and concerned when they fumble. Much of that concern is due to the sheer vileness of their nemesis, a government thug named Strickland and played by Michael Shannon at Maximum Michael Shannon. The character is about four degrees removed from his Nelson Van Alden on Boardwalk Empire, but no matter; authoritarian figures bursting with casual sexism, racism, and narcissism are, we’re finding, a dime a dozen. (A scene of workplace sexual harassment plays with even more sting than it did when the film screened back in September at in Toronto.)
Shannon’s not the only ace character actor lending support. Michael Stuhbarg, in (checks IMDb) his thirtieth performance of the fall, brings humanity and anguish to a character that could’ve been a cardboard plot engine. Jenkins is just achingly good as the gentle, closeted neighbor and pal who’s harboring an impossible crush on the propreitor of the neighborhood pie shop, a “Dixie Doug” franchise that he cheerfully presides over with a fake Southern accent – “I’m from Ottawa,” he confides – forging an accidental bond with Jenkins, who recognizes another mask-wearer in the wild. (In a nice touch, he’s a commercial illustrator, and spends much of the movie painting an advertisement of a happy nuclear family, the queer artist tasked with forwarding the notion of heteronormativity.)
Hawkins is fabulous as the mute Eliza, speaking volumes without saying a word. Witness the intensity with which she pleads her case for the heist (and only in sign language), or the loaded little almost-smile she displays for Strickland during his toothless interrogation, or the way she looks at Jenkins at a key moment, when he thinks he’s coming to save her. Nothing else matters in that first flush of love, and this wonderful film lives in that moment, and revels in it.
But the star of the movie is Mr. del Toro, who thankfully didn’t let the commercial failure of his last film, the sublime Crimson Peak, discourage him from making another picture whose primary emotion is lush romanticism. The craft of his filmmaking is as sharp as ever – there’s something simply intoxicating about the way he moves his camera, and cuts on those movements (particularly in musical montages) – and it’s a pleasure simply to look at.
But this is not a matter of empty aesthetics. His sets don’t look like sets – they look like settings, lived in, worked in, as he peers into not just any past, but a past where people seem to be craning their necks towards the future. Here, the filmmaker all but begs them to be patient. In this Cold War-era fable, he constructs a world of old movies and scratchy records, period details and practical monsters. It’s like it was shot in his traveling museum exhibit, and I, for one, didn’t want to leave. What a divine movie this is.
“The Shape of Water” is out today in New York. It opens December 8 in Los Angeles and expands in the following weeks.