Guillermo del Toro Reinvents the Fairy Tale With ‘The Shape of Water’

While many films have examined the Cold War and its effects on everyday American life, celebrated Mexican auteur Guillermo del Toro makes the bold choice to set a fairy tale of sorts during this turbulent time period with “The Shape of Water.” Sally Hawkins stars as Elisa, Del Toro’s version of Cinderella, a mute woman who is employed as a cleaning lady in a government laboratory in 1962 Baltimore. An orphan who was found abandoned as a baby, Elisa has made a family of her own with her eccentric neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), as well as her best girlfriend and co-worker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). While not literally voiceless like their friend, both Giles and Zelda deal with being marginalized in society – Giles for being gay, and Zelda for being a black woman. But no one is more isolated than the Prince Charming of the story, a man-fish hybrid known as the Asset (Doug Jones). Found in South America and kept as a prisoner in the laboratory, it is there that Elisa is able to form a bond with this creature who proves to be, in many ways, more evolved and sensitive than most of those who have been entrusted with his “care.” The endgame for the government officials is to study Asset and use him to their advantage in the escalating conflict with the Soviets. Desperate to free him from his inhumane treatment and possible death, our heroine, with the help of her friends, risks everything to save her new friend, who is perhaps the only other living creature who truly understands her.

Used to being invisible, things get complicated when Elisa attracts some unwanted attention from the villain of the story, a government agent named Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who seems to believe he is entitled to her attentions just because he’s her boss. Unlike Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlberg), a conflicted scientist who is revealed to be living a double life, Strickland has no compassion for the creature. In one scene that drives the point home about indifference to life during wartime, Hoffstetler pleads with Strickland to not allow the Asset to be dissected, making argument that it’s wrong because he has shown to have thoughts and feelings. “So do the Soviets and the gooks,” is his reply. “But we kill them too.” After Elisa, with help from Zelda, Giles and Hoffstetler, bravely rescues the Asset, Strickland stops at nothing to find this creature that he has so much contempt for, not so much because he particularly cares about the science, but more so because his superiors have put their foot on his neck, and Shannon brilliantly portrays him as a man determined to reclaim his manhood, even if it means putting the safety of himself and others at risk.

Despite all the drama, “The Shape of Water” is at its heart a love story. Despite the limitations of the role, Hawkins give a performance that is arguably the best of her already illustrious career. With the Asset, Elisa finds escape from her life and troubles in the bathroom of her modest apartment. Rarely have special effects been used so effectively as to further a romance, one that del Toro, Hawkins and Jones gently ease the viewer into, so as to get them so invested that they can almost suspend their disbelief about an interspecies relationship. As one can probably surmise from the title, water plays a central role, and a sequence involving Elisa filling up her bathroom with water so she and her amphibian man can be together will surely be remembered as one of the most touching and visibly striking of the year.

Jones, a stable in del Toro’s films for the past 20 years, is known exclusively for playing non-human roles. During a recent sit-down with Entertainment Voice, he opened up about how he prepared to play this new kind of character during his three weeks of rehearsal time in Toronto, and the bond he made with Hawkins during the process and how it better served the final product.

“During those three weeks, [Hawkins and I] had a lot of time to giggle together, and even tear up and cry together over a couple things, to share stories of personal things and our fears and insecurities, and sharing with each other, ‘Are you terrified of this movie? I am,’” Jones revealed. “We both had so much riding on this movie. Once you have shared that much with somebody and then the camera roles, we already had a backstory between the two of us. We an intimacy and an affection between each other that ran pretty deep by the end.”

The Shape of Water” opens Dec. in New York, Dec. 8 in select theaters, Dec. 22 nationwide.