Unfolding beneath water where furniture and a beautiful woman languorously drift, the opening narration of The Shape of Water is as poetic as the magical fairy-tale in which “a princess without a voice” is at its centre. The latest feature by Mexican director Guillermo del Toro uses a romantic fantasy to reinforce the idea that, in our world of endless power struggles and intrigue, it is still human feelings which counts for when all is said and done.
And oh, his gaze is sublime. Set in Baltimore in the early 1960s, the film delights as much with the exquisitely liquid visuals (Dan Laustsen) and heart-arresting scores (Alexandre Desplat) as the love-story driving it. Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is mute; her vocal chords were cut when she was an orphaned baby. Living in an apartment above a cinema she is friendly with a neighbour, Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted-gay artist who faces discrimination in his professional and social lives. For her livelihood Elisa works closely with a warm and caring African-American woman, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), at a secret government laboratory as a janitor.
Life is happy enough and uneventful — she watches Hollywood musicals with Giles and seeks out her own erotic pleasures — until the US agency receives a reptilian creature they had captured from somewhere in the Amazon. The vaguely man-resembling amphibian has the unusual ability of surviving in different conditions. And, Washington at the height of the Cold War has ordered for him to be studied to gain an edge over Moscow in the space contest. Only, that study demands carrying out an autopsy on the organism’s corpse, something Elisa who has meanwhile found a connection with him is determined to thwart.
Confronting Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the brutal head at the facility, she finds herself caught up in scenarios of harassment and Russian espionage and an unnerving heist. From time to time, a tone of wry satire accumulates, swelling into socio-political allegory, like when Richard goes off and buys a Cadillac, in his aspiration to be “a man of the future”, at the expense of present morality. It is a cynical view of the US that is pitiless and blunt, but no less perspicacious for that.
Yet, with its meticulous framing and soft, optimistic temperament The Shape of Water — a title distilled in the poster-image of two entwined bodies that speaks to love — earns its air of felt emotions. In one memorably ethereal scene two drops of rain are caught pursuing each other before they elongate, stretch, and merge into one. A monochromatic daydream where Elisa finds her voice to sing You’ll Never Know in a gorgeous dance sequence with her lover will move even hearts of stone.
In a resonant atmosphere of defence race and political muscle, del Toro seems to be saying, it is not rivalry but co-existence, affection not oppression, that will win out in the end.