The Shape of Water Is a Fairy Tale That’s As Steadfast as It is Strange

The Shape of Water

Guillermo del Toro (director and writer), Vanessa Taylor (writer), Dan Laustsen (cinematographer), Sidney Wolinsky (editor)
Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins (cast)
September 1, 2017 (Toronto International Film Festival 2017), August 31, 2017 (Venice International Film Festival)

An invitation lies at the heart of Guillermo del Toro’s newest film, an almost-irresistible siren call towards the fairy tale he’s created. I don’t choose that word lightly–the creature we see is more fish than man, scales and all. As del Toro invites the viewer to follow him into the love story between this fish man and human woman, it almost feels like he’s aware of your uncertainty, but beckons you forward anyway. The result is a two hour film that will perhaps be predictable for longtime del Toro fans, but it’s an honest and enchanting ride all the same.Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins) lives a simple and structured life: breakfasts at home, does janitorial work at a top-secret government facility, and visits with her next-door neighbor Giles. An unnamed creature–referred to only as The Asset (Doug Jones)–is brought into the laboratory, accompanied by the glowering Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon). With the Cold War looming in the background, the Asset could be something that tips the war in America’s favour. Eliza and the Asset form a connection in their loneliness, changing both their lives forever.

The Shape of Water movie poster

The Shape of Water is a film that doesn’t shy away from ugliness, exploring it just as deftly as it does beauty. Eliza’s life, while solitary, has little lovely moments, and her inability to speak isn’t used as an excuse to make her meek. Sally Hawkins imbues Eliza with a mischievous nature and an indomitable wit, and her presence is more commanding than the Asset’s. Doug Jones continues his excellent work under the full-body prosthetics, giving the Asset both a childlike curiosity and a spine of steel beneath. When Eliza and the Asset meet, the chemistry between them is undeniable. Eliza wonders and the Asset draws closer, and you shrug your shoulders and nod, because of course they belong together. Only a cruel fate could split them apart.

A simmering Michael Shannon as Colonel Strickland embodies that cruel fate, as his barely leashed fury threatens to destroy several lives, including his own. Strickland’s dedication to impressing his boss and reinforcing his white cis-heterosexual masculinity are both his main character traits and his greatest weaknesses. Given that we recognize Strickland as a bad man almost as soon as he appears, I found it completely unnecessary for him to use threats of sexual assault against Eliza. His bigotry is already clear as day.

Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in The Shape of Water - Guillermo del Toro 2017
Eliza and the Asset / Copyright Fox Searchlight Pictures

Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins round out the main cast as Eliza’s friends Zelda and Giles. Their performances are strong and charming, though it was difficult not to feel that Spencer was underused. Relegated to being a foil for Eliza’s impulsiveness, Spencer only takes centre stage in one scene, and I would have loved to see her in more. Jenkins has far more screen time, and his emotional subplot (a crush on a nearby pie maker man) is sweet, but the audience doesn’t need much convincing to know Giles’s friendship with Eliza is the strongest connection he’s made in his life.

It’s impossible to miss the vibrant shades of green that del Toro uses to tell this story. Indeed, the colour plays its own role in the film as an indication of what the “future” could look like. The facility is coated in green paint; Eliza and her fellow janitors wear greenish uniforms; and green crystals float alongside the Asset. The metaphor may come across as a bit heavy-handed, what with Eliza’s very (literally) green love interest and Strickland’s hatred of the colour. Giles’ love of classic black-and-white musicals sets up for the only scene that feels a little out of place in the film, and yet, I couldn’t help but shrug yet again–we’ve already seen the woman and fish man have sex, so is a little musical interlude really that farfetched? Fairy tales don’t have to be complicated to be meaningful, and there is still magic in how del Toro manages to wrap up Eliza and the Asset’s story.

Frankly, it was hard not to think of a previous del Toro film during this screening. Pan’s Labyrinth is a fairy tale as well, although its protagonist is a child trying to find her way back to the Underworld. Eliza and Ofelia are similarly stubborn and determined, and their fates require more of them than what many of us might be willing to give. Those who have seen Pan’s Labyrinth may find it easy to see where The Shape of Water is headed, but I must admit that I was willing to follow along anyway. del Toro’s films are unafraid of facing the brutality and cruelty that humanity has always struggled with, and they call to those of us who see beyond to the other side.

Angel Cruz

Angel Cruz

Angel Cruz is a writer and boy band scholar. You can also find her at Book Riot for endless discussion and flailing over all things literature. Ice cream, Broadway musicals, and Arashi are her lifeblood.