“Time is but a river flowing from our past.”
There are princesses and monsters in The Shape of Water, a sumptuous, scary, and spellbinding new fairy tale film from Guillermo del Toro. It’s “Beauty and the Beast” for a time when happy endings can seem too few and far between, with political underpinnings that are almost uncomfortably relevant. And even though it’s built on a fairy tale frame, it is definitely not for children.
Fairy tales were not meant to be pretty. Women and children were victims in tales often filled with sexual angst and violence as a caution to anyone who might consider stepping out of line. They were populated by malevolent creatures, and the creeping horror could insinuate itself into a listener’s consciousness, revealed as a little voice of warning—or perhaps of conscience. It is no wonder then that del Toro, one of our generation’s most creatively dark storytellers, a crafter of elegant nightmares, could so brilliantly re-imagine a classic for our time.
Octavia Spencer and Sally Hawkins
The Shape of Water takes place in the sleepy emerald-colored world of Elisa Esposito, played with remarkable power and charm by Sally Hawkins. Elisa’s a mute nightshift janitor at a large government laboratory facility. She smiles mildly while her cleaning partner, Zelda (a reliably funny but put-upon Octavia Spencer), chatters at a constant clip about her frustration with her uncommunicative, unappreciative husband. Elisa’s silence is never a weight or a weakness. She says everything she needs with her expressiveness and a few signs. The same is true of her relationship with her neighbor and best friend Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay man far enough past middle age to see what he has become who longs to return to the days of his youth.
The film is set in 1960s Baltimore—just a short drive from Washington, D.C. during the dark days of the Cold War, the capital of a nation on the eve of great change, from the Civil Rights Movement to the space race to naked hippies on Haight and Ashbury. The Shape of Water exists in a world in flux, the visuals intoxicating in their lushness but the content full of social tensions that we can look at through today’s lens to note how far we’ve come, and how far back we could slide if we’re not careful.
The film’s villain, Strickland, played with tingling menace by Michael Shannon, is the part that makes this movie so uncomfortably relevant. He’s a violent, racist, misogynist white man in the business of getting paid protecting the greedy interests of other rich and powerful white men. He’d be right at home in a certain Cabinet today. He’s confident in his superiority as a master of the universe, so much so that it’s difficult for him to admit when he’s been had.
Del Toro specializes in otherworldliness. He brings to life unique characters and ethereal, dreamlike places like no one else. Doug Jones, who has played a menagerie of del Toro’s incredible inventions, is the nameless being brought to the facility by Strickland and Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a man with secrets of his own. Like Hawkins, Jones is limited by lack of speaking, using his strong, graceful physicality to communicate.
This isn’t revolutionary cinema in terms of giving us something we’ve never seen before, but it is lovely and hopeful and done so well that it doesn’t even seem that fishy for a woman to fall in love with a creature who bares more than a passing resemblance to the Creature from the Black Lagoon. We’ve seen characters like these before—even played by the same actors—but we can see them in this light, in these. Their familiarity isn’t a curse, but a comfort. It makes it easy to relax and enjoy the story as it ebbs and flows.
The Shape of Water isn’t a film about celebrating outsiders, or even about underdogs triumphant. That’s all consequential. What it is, to a great extent, is an argument that even in this often cold and ugly world, where monsters are all around us, it is still possible to find beauty. We just have to open our hearts to it.
Photos by Kerry Hayes © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Top photo: Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones