In the opening sequence of The Shape of Water, we are told that we are about to embark on “a tale of love and loss, and the monster who tried to destroy it all”. Indeed, what Guillermo del Toro gives us in The Shape of Water is a stock tale of star-crossed lovers and evil villains against the backdrop of 60s Baltimore – injected with a delicious inversion not likely to be forgotten.
For protagonist Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman who works nights as a cleaner at a top-secret government facility, water guides her existence. It boils her eggs for lunch, it bathes her, it’s an essential vessel of her sexuality and the tool she uses to scrub the floors. Water is Sally’s constant companion, and it’s about to deliver her to the greatest love of her life: the US government’s prize ‘asset’, a more sophisticated manifestation of the namesake monster in the 1954 film The Creature from the Black Lagoon.
The real monster, as it turns out, takes the form long-considered closest to God – the straight, white male; namely, the hostile government agent, Strickland (Michael Shannon), whose ruthless determination to destroy the amphibian man threatens to push Sally into the line of fire. With the help of her endearing but troubled neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her full-hearted co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), Sally develops a risky scheme to free the amphibian man before Strickland’s brutal methods of exploitation result in murder.
Strickland is unapologetically racist and misogynistic, a man whose rottenness is apparent in the gradually decaying fingers reattached to his hand after an altercation with the amphibian man. Echoes of this cruel white male archetype can be seen in the man behind the counter at the pie restaurant, all smiles until a black couple walks in, or until a man places a hand on his. It’s the pre-existing bullies of the world who, so often heralded the heroes, are the destructive entity of del Toro’s film.
This is perhaps why we’re not really surprised by the romantic relationship between the creature and Eliza: he may look different, but the message he radiates is that humanity is not restricted to, nor does it define, our own species. Their romance is heartening and unaffected by their seeming incompatibility. Their growing love is unmoved by the monumental efforts made to separate them by a ravenous Strickland, developing so steadily as if it were the most natural and essential thing in the world. Their embraces are always saturated with a surety and serenity which extends to the audience as we melt into their romance. While there is definite scope for this mysterious sea creature to truly terrify us, we always somehow feel safe around him – even when he unfortunately mistakes a beloved cat for a snack.
The Shape of Water is an intelligent, sensitive and honest portrayal of love which makes a highly gratifying sidestep into science fiction. It is a rare thing to completely overturn the fundamental building blocks of a classic genre, but here del Toro does so monumentally and without reservation.
Film reviewed at Cineworld, Edinburgh.
Image: Twentieth Century Fox