VENICE, Italy — A majestic 1960s movie palace, glistening in the rain. A derelict apartment awash in antiquity. A mute woman (Sally Hawkins, lovely as always) and her elderly gay caretaker (Richard Jenkins, ditto) parked in front of the tube. The Shape of Water casts a spell over its audience from its opening moments and holds you in its thrall long after the credits have rolled.
Premiering at the 74th edition of the Venice Film Festival, the film tells the tale of Elisa, a “princess without a voice” whose vocal chords were slashed as a child, rendering her mute. Her days are filled with longing, both for the romance she sees in the Hollywood films she adores and to be accepted unconditionally. When she’s not pleasuring herself in the bathtub or shooting the breeze (via ASL) with her neighbor/father figure Giles, a failed gay artist who also knows a thing or two about society’s fiercely judgmental gaze, Elisa works as a janitor at a top-secret government laboratory on the outskirts of Baltimore, mopping up piss with her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), whose wisecracking helps get them through the day.
This soul-crushing routine is soon disrupted by the arrival of a cattle-prod-wielding government agent named Strickland (Michael Shannon) hauling precious cargo in a metal-plated water tank. The cargo, it turns out, is a mysterious sea creature that was discovered deep in the Amazon, where the natives worshipped it as a god. Resembling a cross between the merman Abe Sapien from Hellboy (also played by Doug Jones) and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, this mesmeric being can breathe in and out of water, and possesses regenerative powers. It can also communicate, and before long Elisa has developed a close bond with the creature, teaching it to sign, feeding it eggs, and playing it music during her mopping breaks. Their relationship is akin to Ann Darrow and Kong, albeit with considerably more romantic tension.
A premise such as this—mute woman falls for humanoid swamp thing in 1960s Baltimore—would seem absurd were it not guided by the deft hand of Guillermo Del Toro, who realized a similar (albeit more platonic) union in his 2006 masterwork Pan’s Labyrinth. And, echoing that film’s anti-fascist notes, The Shape of Water has plenty to say about the harsh prejudices of ’60s America, from Strickland speaking to Zelda about “your kind” to a cute counterman brutally rebuffing Giles’ advances. Nowhere is this critique more pointed than in Strickland’s treatment of what he calls The Asset, viciously beating and prodding it into submission.
Strickland and his bureaucratic overlords hope to vivisect the creature in order to use its otherworldly abilities in the arms race against the Soviet Union, but the Reds have a card up their sleeve as well in Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), aka Dimitri, a scientist working at the facility torn between his allegiances to country and science. He provides a fascinating foil to Strickland, another man chewed up (quite literally, with two decaying fingers) and spit out by the government and who longs for the simple life.
The Shape of Water is bursting at the seams with remarkable visual flourishes, long a Del Toro staple. Drops of water on a bus window merge, swimming into a sharp dissolve; woman and creature embrace in a pool of water, her pale body wrapped around his like a moving painting; a vintage musical dream sequence straight out of The Artist. It is never less than magnificent.
Del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor (Game of Thrones) also do an expert job at fleshing out each and every character here, aided by a cast of first-rate actors in Shannon, Jenkins, Stuhlbarg, and Spencer. But it’s Hawkins who makes this film truly soar, turning in a voiceless performance every bit as beguiling as her cheery prattler in Happy-Go-Lucky. It is in her shimmering eyes and broad smile that we see a woman who finally feels heard; who is basking in the glow of acceptance found in the unlikeliest of places. Even as things get, well, physical between woman and sea creature, Elisa’s love—and her journey—remain true. Here, Del Toro has crafted an enchanting fairy-tale for the ages.