The film opens with voiceover by Giles (Richard Jenkins) who tells his story that turns into a beautiful poem at the end of the film. It braces the audience for sappiness, but as the film unfolds, Del Toro shows how sappiness can be done in movies in a good way – with the repeated use of the famous Alice Faye song, “You’ll Never Know”.
The film’s subject is Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mousy, curious woman rendered mute by an injury she sustained as an infant. She works the night shift as a janitor at the Occam Aerospace Research Centre in early 1960s Baltimore. One day, the facility receives a new “asset” discovered by the cruel and abusive Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) in the rivers of South America. Elisa has a brief encounter with The Asset (Doug Jones), which she discovers is an amphibious humanoid. She feels sorry for it and helps it escape by stealing it from the facility. Helping her are her best friend Giles, one of the centre’s scientists, Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is actually a Soviet spy named Dmitri and her co-worker (Octavia Spencer).
The film’s best and most amusing is the TV (one of many) clip of MR. ED (the talking horse) in which after a newspaper article seen in the background of a monkey sent to space. Mr Ed Says, “I guess I have to enlist.” It is a very funny and appropriate segment as the setting is of the time when Russia and the U.S. were engaged in the space race, just as it is mentioned that the U.S. wanted to send the water creature into space because of its breathing capabilities.
Any perfect story has to be brought to the screen by a perfect performance. This performance belongs to Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins, who broke into the film scene with the remarkable portrayal of Mike Leigh’s heroine in HAPPY-GO-LUCKY. She brings heart to the role as a deaf mute who finally finds not only love but a purpose for living.
A superb film with a message included – THE SHAPE OF WATER shows a non-tolerance policy towards bullying, and discrimination towards coloured people, homosexuals and lower paid employees like the cleaners. Most of this is realized in the diner that Elisa and Giles frequent, mainly because closeted Giles fancies the male server. It is a marvel that a mute can communicate the film’s prime message: “If we do nothing, then we are nothing!”
There is a lot of good similarity between THE SHAPE OF WATER and Del Toro’s other best movie PAN’S LABYRINTH. Del Toro’s dislike for anything military is shown in the unsavoury character of Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon). He is given Del Toro’s punishment of bodily injury of his two fingers chopped off (as the colonel in PAN’S LABYRINTH had his face hacked.)
Del Toro is smart enough to prime the audience for what is to come, thus invoking what was Hitchcock’s best tool – audience anticipation. The audience first sees blood on the sink after Elisa touches the creature.
The film contains lots of the back humour one expects of Del Toro. The poster “Loose lips might sink ships” is shown on the wall of Elisa’s (who is mute) locker. “No negativity” Strickland utters, just as he realizes he is about to lose everything he has worked for.
The musical fantasy sequence towards the end in back and white where the mute Elisa is then allowed to sing is nothing short of inspired filmmaking.
THE SHAPE OF WATER is filmmaking at its best with Del Toro still in top form, with top talent on display. He does not compromise on the violence (a few torture scenes involve the metal prod) but amidst the violence and occasional foul language, his latest film is one of the most credible and beautiful romantic stories in cinemas this year.