“The Shape of Water” brings its audience into a mysterious government facility in Baltimore where, in the deepest recesses of the lab, an amphibious creature (played by Doug Jones) is being studied for its unusual abilities. As Agent Strickland (Michael Shannon) demands for it to be killed and autopsied, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) insists that the creature’s secrets can only be revealed with a lighter touch.
But it’s the facility’s quietest employee who realises the truest connection to the creature. Mute cleaner Elisa (Sally Hawkins) feels a strange affinity with this mysterious visitor from the deep. And as the men in charge prevaricate, she resolves to release the creature from its captors, with the aid of her colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her next door neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins).
The movie is directed by award winning director Guillermo Del Toro who is best renowned for his three inspired Spanish-language films that reinvent and upend the very notion of genre: the multiple Oscar®-winning “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Cronos,” and “The Devil’s Backbone.” Each is a vivid phantasmagoria navigating the moral and physical dangers of a world of corruption, authoritarianism and war. His supernatural action epics are equally as inventive – “Blade II,” the “Hellboy” series, and “Pacific Rim,” as well as his gothic romance “Crimson Peak.”
The Shape of Water follows in that tradition, but this time in socially divided 1960s America on the brink of nuclear war and sweeping cultural changes. Del Toro weaves in the dizzying landscape of falling in love, as a lonely woman with a traumatic past discovers a love so overpowering it defies suspicion, fear and biology.
Del Toro opens his tale deep underwater. From there the entire film becomes an act of breathless submersion, plunging the audience into a 1960s world full of things we recognize – power, anger, intolerance; as well as loneliness, determination and sudden, electrifying connections – and one extraordinary creature we do not. An inexplicable biological “asset” of the U.S. government, a mute cleaning woman, her loving best friends, Soviet spies and an audacious theft all flow into a singular romance that surges beyond all boundaries.
Within Del Toro’s storytelling, the themes of good and evil, innocence and menace, the historical and the eternal, beauty and monstrosity weave in and out of each other, revealing that no darkness can ever fully defeat the light. Summarizes Del Toro: “I like to make movies that are liberating, that say it’s okay to be whoever you are, and it seems that at this time, this is very pertinent.” It was also paramount that there be an extraordinary collection of actors.
Exploring the idea of love and its barriers, internal and external, was paramount to Del Toro. “I wanted to create a beautiful, elegant story about hope and redemption as an antidote to the cynicism of our times. I wanted this story to take the form of a fairytale in that you have a humble human being who stumbles into something grander and more transcendental than anything else in her life. And then I thought it would be a great idea to juxtapose that love against something as banal and evil as the hatred between nations, which is the Cold War, and the hatred between people due to race, color, ability and gender.”
The fact that the film’s two leads don’t speak, not conventionally anyway, only heightens the love story by stripping away the miscommunications that often stand between humans. “One thing about love is that it is so incredibly powerful, it doesn't require words,” says Del Toro.
“The Shape of Water” opens February 21 in cinemas nationwide from 20th Century Fox.