When a semiaquatic humanoid (Doug Jones) is brought in chains to a Baltimore military research facility sometime during the Cold War, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a cleaner at the facility who communicates through sign language, finds the nonverbal creature kindred to her nonspeaking self. Their relationship is one of several that anchors Guillermo del Toro’s latest fairy tale, The Shape of Water, whose central characters experience the era’s bright promises in terms of disappointment and disempowerment. Referencing both classical Hollywood musicals and CinemaScope, the film has the soft, sparkling edges of the former and the grand exuberance of the latter. A happy ending is expected.
Del Toro first enraptured me, and many others, with 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth. In that film, a young girl navigates the terror of fascist patriarchy via a dark world of magical beings that overlays her home. The Shape of Water, too, fascinates most in its portrayal of the interface between the human and the monstrous. The predicament of the nameless, captive being, who’s periodically stunned with an electric prod by a sadistic officer (Michael Shannon), reminds us that the shape of water has been the shape of torture, subjection, and dehumanization. This is partly what makes water’s capacities for liberation, here pictured with tenderness and joy, so compelling.
Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins buttress the film as Elisa’s partners in crime, but they play sketches of postwar life rather than fully fleshed-out characters. The ever-delightful Sally Hawkins is The Shape of Water’s big draw; her physically expressive performance style, reminiscent of silent-era stars, is well matched to the role of someone who communicates sans speech. Soon, though, I hope actors with disabilities will get their starring turns in major films in which disability is rendered as possibility rather than lack.