(Content warning: violence, nudity, gore, sexual themes.)
Part love story, part Cold War thriller, and part creature-feature, Guillermo del Toro blends these seemingly disparate film genres into one unconventional yet fluid fairy tale in The Shape of Water.
Sally Hawkins gives a stellar performance as Elisa Esposito, a lonely cleaning lady at a top-secret government facility in Baltimore, Maryland. Communicating through American Sign Language due to a childhood incident that left her without a voice, Elisa is the kind of person who is often overlooked, blending into the background as she goes about her tasks. Her life is one that is routine and mundane, sleeping during the day after working all night at the lab, tidying and cleaning after military experiments.
One day, a tank containing a strange, amphibious humanoid creature is brought into the lab, and Elisa’s life is changed forever. She, along with her reclusive artistic neighbour, her coworker, and a Soviet spy, is faced with a choice to make: either recognize the humanity in the creature and liberate him, or to turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed to him and become monsters themselves.
The Shape of Water is more often than not, gruesome, true to its roots as a monster film. It does not shy away from violence, gore, and sexuality, staples, of del Toro’s works. But these elements do not take away, rather, they add and round out the themes explored in the film. Violence emphasize the compassionate acts. Without gore, there is no healing. Romance sheds its frivolity and blossoms into fully fleshed love with its tender depiction of sexuality. The Shape of Water is at times a difficult film to watch, yet somehow, you can’t look away.
Guillermo del Toro is a master at his craft. In melding together a compelling tale in The Shape of Water using components from well-established genres, he further proves his artistic acumen with his willingness to reach into the unknown and lovingly, tenderly, creating beauty out of the dark, often taken for granted corners of cinema.