It’s impossible to get mad at a Guillermo Del Toro movie. Even his misfires, like the forgettable Crimson Peak and generic Mimic have a creative spark to them that seems increasingly rare in modern Hollywood. He’s a man who clearly loves what he does, even managing to put his artistic stamp on prefab properties like Blade II. But The Shape of Water is his vision through and through, for better and for worse.
The story centers on Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a shy and intelligent woman rendered mute by a childhood injury. Living alone in early-60s Baltimore, she gets by doing janitorial work at a mysterious government research center. Her only friends to speak of are her chatty co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her elderly gay neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins). One day, Elisa stumbles upon the lab’s newest “asset:” an aquatic humanoid (Doug Jones) captured from the Amazon. Despite the warnings of Strickland (Michael Shannon), the project’s head of security, Elisa finds herself befriending and eventually romancing the creature.
For its first third or so, The Shape of Water is pure charm, rendering its setting in loving, painstaking detail. From its murky, aquatic palette to its crooning soundtrack, it’s a terrific mood piece, creating a world that strikes the perfect balance between fantastic and evocative. Del Toro’s handle on style is stronger than ever, as is his ability to choose the perfect actors for his roles. But this nose for casting turns out to be a double-edged sword.
There’s not a weak performance in the movie, but most of the principals are absurdly typecast: Shannon is the intimidating heavy, Spencer is the equal-parts wise and sassy best friend, and Jenkins is the kindly, melancholy father figure. This is to say nothing of Doug Jones, most of whose major credits can be classified as “humanoid creature in a Guillermo Del Toro movie.” Del Toro himself is also firmly in his comfort zone, working in all his trademark elements: the timeless fable in a period setting, the misfit heroes, and the magical realism at the story’s core.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with casting actors in parts we know they excel at, or with playing to one’s strengths as a director. But the choices’ obviousness does dampen the movie’s impact a tad, with one exception: Sally Hawkins’ transcendent lead performance. Deprived of one of acting’s essential tools, she creates a sympathetic and layered character, at once meek and brave, earnest and playful, mousy and beautiful. By the time the credits roll, The Shape of Water is just as much her movie as it is Del Toro’s.
The movie’s few notable weaknesses lie in is its midsection, which contains the only fumbles in an otherwise well-oiled narrative. A subplot involving one character’s true allegiances is given far more time than is needed, as are the meandering scenes of Strickland’s home life, and the pacing suffers as a result. It’s here, too, that we run into the movie’s nadir: an out-of-left-field fantasy sequence that deserves credit for its sheer audacity, but simply doesn’t work.
Narrative quibbles aside, The Shape of Water is still a far better movie than most, made with inarguable technical prowess and unaffected heart. The whole thing is filled with so much sincerity that it almost feels wrong to say anything bad about it. It’s the kind of movie that the film-as-auteur’s-baby metaphor was made for, and no one wants to punch a baby in the face. Thankfully The Shape of Water never forces the viewer to make that choice, because it’s a uniquely romantic fairy tale with magic to spare.