Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writers: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Oftentimes when we think of fairy tales today, we think of children’s stories in the vein of Disney; wholesome fantasies about adventure, love, and imagination that teach us a moral. Historically that hasn’t been the case with this genre. Many of the fables we know today as popularised by the Victorian likes of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen find their origins in frightful folklore originally intended for adults. Indeed, the Brothers Grimm had to revise their original publication of Children’s and Household Tales upon receiving complaints that their stories were too sexual and violent. There has always been a dark heart to fairy tales, and it is one that del Toro has dedicated his career towards exploring in films like Pan’s Labyrinth. He has always been fascinated by the way fairy tales use monsters and beasts to represent the negative qualities of humanity and has often found these creatures to be profoundly human as a result. In his “fairy tale for troubled times”, del Toro seeks to tell a timeless fable for a modern audience in all of its wonder and darkness.
The film is set in the USA in 1962, an idealistic time in American history. The Second World War was a memory, the country was prospering, and the Kennedys were in the White House. However, beneath that glitzy surface of glory, growth, and glamour the reality wasn’t quite as wholesome. The oft-romanticised 1960s was a nightmarish time, a period when two nuclear superpowers were engaged in an ominous staring contest with the threat of global annihilation hanging in the balance. It was a mythological time for the United States where the ideology of ‘greatness’ contributed towards the intolerance and contempt of those who fell short of the All-American ideal, whether it be because of the colour of their skin, their sexual orientation, or their disability. It was an age of brutality and prejudice where the outcasts who lived in the margins of society had long been rendered speechless, unable to speak out and make their voices heard. In The Shape of Water this sense of voicelessness is represented literally by the central couple, the mute Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) and the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones).
Elisa is a cleaner who has long since lost her voice in an accident that left her neck disfigured. She lives alone above the Orpheum Cinema, an old-timey movie theatre that plays classic films to an almost empty auditorium. The one person she spends any time with when not at work is Giles (Richard Jenkins), an ageing, balding, closeted man whose days consist of black-and-white movies starring Betty Grable and Shirley Temple and fantasies about the young, handsome waiter at the local pie emporium. At night she works shifts at a secret government laboratory in Baltimore where the scientists are laboriously trying to work out how to get to the moon before the Russians. Working alongside her is Zelda (Octavia Spencer), a matronly, vivacious African-American woman who speaks more than enough for the both of them. One night the facility receives a delivery in the form of an aquatic, humanoid creature. Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) wants to study the creature that was once revered as a god by local Amazonian tribes and see what they can learn from it. Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon), the military official in charge of the facility, however sees it as an affront to both man and God and orders the doctor to exterminate and dissect it.
Elisa encounters the Amphibian Man and sees not a monster or a god, but a forlorn being, as lonely and as voiceless as herself. She reaches out to the creature and shows him kindness, feeding him boiled eggs, playing him musical records, and teaching him sign language. She learns that the Amphibian Man is an intelligent creature capable of thought, reason, and empathy and that her affection for him is reciprocal. They form a bond with each other akin to Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête was clearly a source of inspiration), except that here the romance does not depend on the beast’s transformation into a handsome prince. The star-crossed lovers are attracted to each other as they are, both spiritually and physically. As fairy tales were modernised in the 19th and 20th centuries and targeted towards children, a point was made to remove the sexual content and connotations of such fables as Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood so that these stories might reflect the chaste (or, if you prefer, repressive) values of their times. In his contemporary adult’s fairy tale, Del Toro feels that it is more honest to allow the couple’s romantic feelings to manifest themselves as sexual desires and does not shy away from portraying it. Beauty and the Beast consummate their love and it is treated and shot like a romantic coupling between two souls, rather than in any kind of a fetishised or exploitative way.
However, in the midst of this “tale of love and loss” there is “the monster who tried to destroy it all”. This is Strickland, a demonstrative, almost stereotypical, symbol of the toxic masculinity of 1960’s America. He lives in the suburbs with his blonde 1950s wife (with whom sex is silent, dour, and missionary) and has two kids, a military career, and a Cadillac. He is also a sadistic bully who preys on the ‘Others’ and demonises them. He eroticises Elisa’s disability and sexually harasses her, he is unabashedly racist towards Zelda, he viciously dominates the physically inferior Dr. Hoffstetler, and he gets glee and elation from torturing the defenceless creature with his cattle prod. At one point he pushes the Amphibian Man too far and provokes him into lashing out, losing two fingers in the process. As the rotting flesh on his hand deteriorates and spreads with each passing day, so does the rot devour his soul more and more like a cancer until it finally drives him well and truly into a vengeful, furious state of madness. He is a familiar type of villain from the Gothic literature and art that has inspired del Toro throughout his career, a man whose heart is so black that he proves himself the real monster of the story, but an updated one whose outdated yet prevalent values are as relevant today as they are harmful.
Like many fairy tales, The Shape of Water is not a very probable story. As well as drawing on elements of fantasy, it takes illogical leaps in its plot and a lot of what follows suspends belief. But then, that’s why the magic of it all is so crucial. One of the great things about fairy tales as a genre is that their stories don’t have to follow logical plots if the emotions are strong enough to lead the way instead (The Wizard of Oz and La Belle et la Bête are both great examples of this). Part of the reason why this film succeeds is because the actors do such a tremendous job of conveying the emotions driving their actions. Hawkins is so expressive in a role that goes entirely unspoken (save a musical fantasy sequence in the style of Ginger Rogers and an aquatic Fred Astaire) she could have been a Hollywood silent movie star had she been born a century earlier. There were scenes where Elisa spoke more with her eyes than any actress could possibly have said with a hundred pages of dialogue. Opposite her, Jones (who has brought so many of Del Toro’s monsters to life in his previous films) delivers a remarkable physical performance as the Amphibian Man, a creature who speaks through musical cries, expressions, and movement.
Another reason The Shape of Water works so well as a fairy tale is the dreamlike atmosphere del Toro and his team were able to create. The film often employs watery imagery from the constant rainfall to the aquatic blues and greens of the sets and costumes to the dim lighting and wavering shadows. We see all this through the lens of a camera that hovers as if it were floating and which flows seamlessly across scenes. It all invokes the feeling of being submerged in the underwater world that we see in the opening scene and watching the film often felt like watching a dream. Accompanying that otherwordly sense throughout is the film’s musical score, a wistful composition that expresses what cannot be said in words. The feelings of melancholy and wonder that emerged were so overwhelming I couldn’t help but be swept away by the magic of it all. The Shape of Water is a beautiful, moving tale of love and loss and of finding your voice. It is a breathtaking, stunning picture that conjures profound emotions and explores the enigmas and ethics of humanity in the way that only fairy tales can.