No other director can present a monster romance as beautifully and as poignantly as Guillermo del Toro can. In essence, The Shape of Water could be a darker, more realistic version of Beauty and the Beast. But it is more than just an enthralling story about two beings falling in love against all odds; it is also a haunting visual spectacle and a showcase of Guillermo del Toro's genius artistry.
The Shape of Water puts the spotlight on Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute who works as a cleaning lady in a high security government laboratory. Elisa sits in a routinely bubble; she lives alone in an apartment above a cinema, watches old musicals with her closet gay friend and neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), and mops floors for a living while listening to her colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer) gossip all day. However, her life suddenly changes when a mysterious amphibious creature (Doug Jones) is brought back to the lab from South America.
Feeling sympathy for something that's trapped against its will, Elisa secretly bonds with said creature, eventually falling in love with it. For a while, the movie makes you forget about the existence of conflict; as it focuses on the blossoming romance between the two. The yearning displayed by both sides is believable, despite no spoken communication. They took a big risk when choosing to go with a silent protagonist, but Sally Hawkins does a tremendous job of conveying the motives, thoughts, and mannerisms of Elisa. You can't help but root for her, even if it involves pairing her with a nonhuman, potentially lethal creature. Of course, it's not long before the villain, Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who's the embodiment of masculine pride, enters the scene and threatens the fate of the monster.
It may be a fantastical story but a lot of it is grounded in reality, especially with all the real issues the film reflects. Set in 1960s Baltimore - when people had high intolerance for other races, nationalities and genders - the film places the spotlight on those who are marginalized by society. It's quite empowering to see a mute, a black lady, and a gay man stand up to an authoritarian menace and actually triumph.
Aside from being a dark fairytale romance, The Shape of Water is also an ode to Old Hollywood. This is evident in the film's Golden Age-inspired soundtracks and in Elisa and Giles' bonding moments where they dance to the rhythm of classical Hollywood musicals. Del Toro artfully synchronizes each scene with the soundtracks, proving how much consideration he gave to every tiny detail in the movie. That also goes for the production design and the cinematography.
The opening sequence alone is a marvel. Elisa and her whole apartment are submerged in water, when an alarm clock goes off in the distance. It turns out, she's in a dream. The scene transitions into reality with her and the rest of the objects slowly falling into place and the water fading from view. You'll see a lot of other cinematic wizardry throughout the film, down to the last scene.
It's no wonder The Shape of Water has 13 nominations at this year's Oscars. Best Picture, Best Actor and Actress, Best Cinematography, Best Original Screenplay, Best Production Design, and the list goes on. The film may very well be del Toro's magnum opus, as it beautifully showcased his mastery in storytelling and cinema.