The Shape Of Water Is Every Prince Sidon Fan's Wettest Dream

the shape of water guillermo del toro movie review
The Shape of Water. (c) Fox Searchlight Pictures

I’m a big fan of Guillermo del Toro. I can’t think of a single movie of his that I’ve disliked. He brings wonder to everything he touches, infused with both romance and horror. He has both an eldritch sense of the unearthly and a childlike sense of awe, and is unlike any modern filmmaker in bringing all of these qualities to the screen in an unabashed, unashamed way.

When I watch a del Toro film, despite individual moments of horror, cruelty and despair, I trust that good will win. The real monsters are never the ugly, twisted, deformed or supernatural; instead they wear human flesh and see themselves as heroes, just like in the real world. But unlike in the real world, the small, pitiful, disdained and voiceless win . That’s the sensibility that has carried del Toro from Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy through to Crimson Peak and finally, The Shape of Water .

The Shape of Water tells the story of a mute young woman named Eliza. Played brilliantly by Sally Hawkins, Eliza works as a janitor at a government facility. She has two friends: a protective, chatty coworker named Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and a former alcoholic and disgraced artist named Giles (Richard Jenkins). Zelda is black, Giles is gay, and both of them survive the movie. Thank you, del Toro.

Eliza has a mind full of theatrical fancy. In another world, without the weight of her speaking impairment, she might have been able to dance and sing to her heart’s delight. But it’s clear she finds joy in her life anyway, in her friendships with Giles and Zelda and the black-and-white images of glamor on the TV. The year is 1962, and flashes of racism and brutality keep us aware that even in the technicolor beauty of seemingly endless promise, folks like Giles and Zelda and Eliza aren’t exactly getting the best end of the deal.

Soon, a top-secret “asset” is brought to the government facility by the despicable Strickland (Michael Shannon), who is working under the behest of General Hoyt (Nick Searcy) to extract as much information as possible. Also working on the asset is a scientist and Russian secret agent, Dr. Hoffstetler, played with compassion and seriousness by Michael Stuhlbarg.

The asset is an amphibian, manlike creature kept in chains. He is beautifully designed, with the body language of a wild prince (thanks to the inimitable Doug Jones), and reminds me of what Mass Effect 2 ’s Thane might have been. Eliza soon starts eating lunch with the creature, sharing eggs with him, teaching him basic sign language, sharing music with him and eyeing him with love and wonder.

Unfortunately, the sadistic Strickland has it out for our fish prince after the creature tears off two of his fingers, and even Hoffstetler’s urgent pleas that killing a beautiful and sentient creature is wrong fall on deaf ears. The asset is scheduled for termination.

Without spoiling the rest of the film, Eliza and the creature fall deeper in love;Strickland falls deep into despair as his fingers grow black with necrosis and his boss delivers a chilling ultimatum. Zelda risks everything to help and protect her fragile friend, and we see Hoffstetler help Eliza out of pure humanitarian nobility. The plot is tense and urgent, even in its dreamiest, loveliest moments of romance, because Eliza and this fish prince are from two different worlds that cannot be reconciled and great forces are aligned against them.

Throughout, the movie’s imagery is the haunting definition of elegiac romance. It opens with a slow tour of Eliza’s submerged apartment, furniture floating like a real-life tour of the Titanic or some hidden part of Bioshock ’s Rapture. Quick glimpses of the fish prince darting through his tank, Eliza’s sleepy, sated smile over an amphibian shoulder, a black-and-white dance sequence, bloody handprints, Giles’ warm and messy apartment, a pan from Giles to the fish prince as both stare out of windows into the rain: this movie is a feast for the eyes that verges on the surreal and fantastic without shame or apology.

The Shape of Water  also makes some fascinating comments on sexuality. From the first moment we meet her, we know Eliza is fully sexually realized with a healthy carnal appetite. When she and the fish prince finally consummate their growing love in a magnificently romantic scene, there is not a shred of ambiguity about the act; Eliza explains it in detail to a shocked but titillated Zelda.

By contrast, Strickland fucks his wife with all the passion of a vacuum cleaner sucking lint out of the carpet; the one moment of real passion we see is when he puts his disgusting, bleeding hand over his wife’s mouth because he wants her to be completely silent. His preference for docile women reaches disturbing heights when he makes a pass at Eliza, speculating on whether she’s fully silent or if he can make her “squawk.” His straight, white sexuality is as deformed as his morals.

Then there’s Giles, whose comment that he should have been born either much earlier or much later rings achingly true. The local pie guy seems friendly, obliging and possibly gay at first, but rejects Giles furiously when the shy artist finally reaches out. At the same time, the pie guy rudely ejects a black couple from his establishment. The pie guy’s violent whiteness and violent straightness are in the wrong here, while Giles’ homosexuality is presented with empathy and understanding.

The movie’s ending is sublimely satisfying. The final image is the same that’s on the movie’s poster, and The Shape of Water’s final lines are of such surpassing beauty that even those allergic to public tears might feel them welling up. Everything you could possibly want to happen happens, but it all feels fiercely, desperately earned.

The Shape of Water opens in theatres nationwide on Dec. 12, and I can’t wait to go see it every day it’s out. It’s del Toro’s favorite movie he’s ever done and might be one of my del Toro favorites, too. I recommend it without reservation as an emotional (but never mawkish), uplifting (but never patronizing) film that provides heroes we need in today’s increasingly cynical, despair-inducing and depressing world.

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