The Shape of Water – an odd romance makes perfect sense

Del Toro reinforces his maxim that humans can sometimes be the biggest monsters of all in this bizarre romance

The opening narration of The Shape of Water, voiced by Richard Jenkins over ethereal shots of a submerged 1960s inner-city apartment, paints the ensuing story as a fairy tale of a reigning prince, a “princess without voice”, and “the monster who tried to destroy it all”. The line seems to be written solely to raise a wry smile from long-time viewers of Guillermo Del Toro’s films; after films such as The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Crimson Peak, it’s a well-established Del Toro trope that human antagonists tend to be far more monstrous than the bizarre creatures that, in the hands of any other filmmaker, would be the automatic villains of the piece.
But what bizarre creatures could possibly await in a film so beloved that it’s already garnered a leading 13 Oscar nominations?
When Guillermo told his regular collaborator Doug Jones (the insanely talented actor behind Abe Sapien in Hellboy, and basically anything weird in Pan’s Labyrinth) that he’d be playing the romantic lead in his latest film, he must have wondered how on earth would that end up looking?
The answer is: far more sweet and romantic than it may appear on paper. Amidst the Cold War paranoia and the Space Race of the early 1960s, Sally Hawkins plays Eliza, a mute cleaning lady in a government-run laboratory. When the scientists capture a truly extraordinary amphibious creature (Jones) from the Amazon river, Eliza bonds with the creature and soon decides to break him out of the laboratory and return him to his home.
The film doesn’t need to add sinister government forces for you to draw parallels with films like E.T., but Michael Shannon’s brusquely sinister Colonel Strickland is a towering ‘monster’ for our heroes to come up against.
Within this gang of heroes, there’s hardly a false note to be found. Octavia Spencer, playing Eliza’s colleague (and often her voice), is wonderfully endearing as Zelda. Richard Jenkins, as her cat-owning artist neighbour Giles, is truly delightful.
Each of the main players is in some way at a socio-cultural disadvantage – Eliza is mute, Giles is gay, Zelda is an African-American woman. The film clearly enjoys pitting society’s outcasts against the traditional patriarchal and American values embodied by the unabashedly villainous Strickland, alongside drawing unexpected parallels between these characters and Jones’ creature.
The creature himself is an incredible feat of design. He has to look suitably monstrous, and wild enough for you to believe he’s a river creature, but also with enough anthropomorphic features that you understand why Eliza would feel an affinity for and, ultimately, an attraction to him.
Yes, you read that right – it’s no secret by now that The Shape of Water is a truly bizarre-on-paper love story between a woman and a fish. Yes, they fall in love. Yes, they have sex. No, you don’t get to see them do it, you perverts. But that’s not the point – the point is that when the two of them do fall in love, it makes perfect sense within the film’s internal logic, and you end up as swept away with their romance as you would be in any other love story.
You see, Guillermo Del Toro has always been a not-so-secret romantic, and his films absolutely reflect that innate romantic sensibility. Pacific Rim is nothing if not a huge love letter to giant robots and kaiju monsters, Crimson Peak is just about the most romantic gothic ghost tale imaginable, and The Shape of Water takes Del Toro’s love of cinema to new heights.
His traditionally lavish production design and cinematography are finally used to capture and frame an actual blossoming romance.
The film is filled with camera compositions that are so gorgeous you could fall in love with them in complete isolation to the rest of the film itself, while Alexandre Desplat’s whistle-filled score sweeps the film away on a wave of pathos.
Like many of this year’s Oscar nominees, the period setting often belies surprisingly timely political commentary – if an audience member chooses to draw parallels to Trump’s America or the #MeToo movement, it’s certainly possible.
But the story itself is painted in frustratingly binary shades – Shannon is certainly a menacing antagonist, but his motivations are textureless and bland, and that feels like a missed opportunity. When the film is taking such big swings in having the two central lovers be a fish and a woman, more moral complexity in the details would surely have enhanced the main narrative.
The film’s central balancing act of creating a world which is both nostalgic for a romantic past, yet often vicious and hard-hitting, is so perfectly executed that it couldn’t be easier to give yourself over to the film’s unique brand of oddness.
It’s strange, it’s unabashedly romantic, it’s probably the most unique thing you’ll see in cinemas this year, and it could only have come from the mind of the legend himself: Guillermo Del Toro.