Eliza (Sally Hawkins) has friends in her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer), but since she cannot speak, she is a woman who very much lives in her own world. When the secret government facility where she works brings in a top-secret experiment – an amphibian man – Eliza finds a kindred spirit in the creature, but when her new friend is threatened, Eliza must find a way to defend him.
Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, The Shape of Water is a fantastical, fairy tale of a love story, that gives focus to characters who have found themselves sidelined throughout history.
Sally Hawkins is tremendous in the lead role as Eliza, a woman who has been mute since birth, but although Hawkins has no spoken dialogue throughout the film, her face, body language and demeanour speak volumes, and show Hawkins’ considerable skill as an actress. Michael Shannon plays government agent Strickland, and is the main antagonist in the film. Shannon infuses the character with menace and is a perfect complement to the pure and beautifully simple character of Eliza. Michael Stuhlbarg plays the complicated and conflicted Dr Robert Hoffstetler, bringing great strength to the role. Octavia Spencer brings tragicomedy as Zelda, an outspoken ally of Eliza’s and a voice of reason throughout the film. Doug Jones, so often overlooked for his fantastic creature performances, manages to bring the amphibian man to beautiful life under layers of prosthetics, making the creature curious and ferocious, while also melancholy and mournful; truly a powerful performance. Finally, Richard Jenkins makes Giles a gentle and engaging character, and his chemistry with Sally Hawkins is infinitely watchable and sweet throughout the film.
For the first time, Guillermo del Toro teams with a woman writer on The Shape of Water, Vanessa Taylor, who is known for her work on Game of Thrones, Divergent and the upcoming Aladdin. Del Toro and Taylor have created a wonderful fairy tale in The Shape of Water, which is superficially beautiful and magical, but also shows glimpses of the darkness underneath magic, and American society at the time in which the film is set. In making the two lead characters incapable of speech, del Toro and Taylor bring two other characters to the fore – a black woman and a gay man – which makes a statement about the overlooked and under represented people in society at the time, while also creating a magical feel, and two wonderful outspoken characters. As well as this, the film also deals with sexuality in a beautiful manner; not shying away from it since it is at the core of this romantic tale, but dealing with it in a confident and subtle way.
As director, del Toro weaves his trademark darkness into the fairy tale of The Shape of Water, creating a magical otherworldly feel for the film. The performances throughout the film are incredibly strong, both individually and as an ensemble, which help to bring the story to shimmering, beautiful life. The first half of the film is incredibly well paced, and it is this that creates trouble for the second act, since the pace feels as though it slows down and the film begins to drag its heels. The look and feel of the film help to cover this up to some degree, and it is still a joy to spend time with the characters, but a tighter edit and stronger focus could have meant for a thoroughly well paced fantasy adventure.
In all, however, The Shape of Water is a stunningly designed fairy tale filled with heart, romance and adventure. It is a delight to spend time in the world that del Toro and Taylor have created, and the cast make a beautiful tale feel real and fleshed out. Aside from a slight stumble in pacing, The Shape of Water is a haunting, fairy tale masterpiece that celebrates romance and the talent of its cast.