“The Shape of Water” is a beautifully shot film, with an underwater color scheme and a camera that seems to float and sink through many of the scenes. Guillermo del Toro’s latest release applies the accomplished writer and director’s signature magical realism storytelling style to a secret research facility in Cold War-era Baltimore.
Elisa, a janitor who lives a lonely and repetitive life, discovers a creature being kept in the lab where she works, and her routines are suddenly broken. Elisa, played by a wonderfully expressive Sally Hawkins, begins to develop a relationship with the misunderstood creature, and she risks her life to save him.
If 1950’s Baltimore seems like an unlikely place to set a fairytale, I believe that would be the point. Everything in the movie feels very noticeably calculated, from the specific movies playing below the main character’s apartment to the way the heroine’s shoes match her mood. The film doesn’t feel realistic, but it’s not supposed to. The bad guys, power hungry establishment men, are caricatures of the way greed, comfort and conformity make a person less able to see the things around them. They aren’t meant to be subtle.
The point of the movie is perhaps a bit belabored, but it is uplifting. Society assigns value to human beings based on a lot of factors they can’t control, and that is damaging. “The Shape of Water” makes an effort to highlight the value, humanity and complexity of people with disabilities, immigrants, people of color, women, LGBTQ individuals and the generally curious and impractical. It doesn’t always succeed, though. (I don’t remember a scene where the film passes the Bechdel test, despite plenty of opportunity.) The Cold War era, with its specific emphasis on conformity and fear of foreigners, provides a perfect backdrop to this conversation, but it’s clear that this message is a response to issues of the current decade.
This movie is definitely not a family-friendly fairy tale. In typical del Toro fashion, there is some surprising and exaggerated gore and a fair amount of nudity. Elisa eventually develops a romantic relationship with the creature, though it is frankly unconvincing. Her interactions with him feel far too maternal to merit any kind of romantic involvement, but her feeling of finally being seen and appreciated does land. Interspecies love stories are a common fairy tale trope, but this iteration was more distracting than anything else. One wonders however if this particular story, with its emphasis on the inherent value of individual lives, would have been better served by a central relationship that was a little more platonic and a little less about how the creature made Elisa feel.
All in all, I’m glad I saw it, but “The Shape of Water” isn’t one I’ll tell everyone to see. Although the message of the film is for everyone, the movie itself very well may not be.