Guillermo del Toro is a genius, but not all of his films turn out the way he envisions them. The Shape of Water is a happy exception, a feast for the senses and one of the year’s most original offerings. As usual, it has been germinating in del Toro’s mind for years. He says it dates back to the moment when, at age six, he first saw the hypnotic image of Julie Adams swimming in a white bathing suit while the Creature from the Black Lagoon stares at her underwater. It’s easy to see how that scene would imprint itself on a boy’s imagination…but what he has given us is not a remake. The Shape of Water alludes to the earlier movie, but it’s a richly detailed piece of work all its own, a dark fairy tale that is not meant for children.
Del Toro refers to the film as a love letter to cinema. Who else would have his heroine living in an apartment above a vintage Baltimore movie palace? The year is 1962 and the future is still full of promise (except for that theater, which hasn’t many customers). When a top-secret government lab captures a mysterious South American sea creature and confines it to a tank, cleaning woman Sally Hawkins is drawn to the shackled figure with large, expressive eyes (master pantomime artist Doug Jones). Being mute herself, Hawkins feels a special connection with the so-called monster, who is routinely tortured by a grim-faced government agent. Michael Shannon plays this villainous character for all he’s worth, and seems to be fighting the Cold War single-handed.
Sally Hawkins, coming off a brilliant performance in Maudie, is brilliantly expressive and empathetic as the heroine of this fable. If we didn’t believe—or care about—her, there would be no movie. The warm-hearted Octavia Spencer is a canny choice to play her friend and coworker, who is able to verbalize what Hawkins can’t.
There is no irony here, no winking at the audience: del Toro takes his story and characters seriously and wants us to do the same, to follow him on a cinematic journey where reality and fantasy converge.
An alcoholic artist, played by the great Richard Jenkins, is Hawkins’ landlord and friend. He is constantly watching old movies on TV and exposes her to the likes of Alice Faye and Betty Grable. This pays off in a dream sequence that few other directors would dare to present to a modern-day audience.
Call it what you will, The Shape of Water, which del Toro wrote with Vanessa Taylor, rekindles a sense of wide-eyed wonder that’s all too rare in contemporary cinema. Computer imagery can create amazing sights, but only a master moviemaker (and movie lover) could have fashioned this dazzling, one-of-a-kind experience.