Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mute janitor that works for a research facility which acquires a strange aquatic creature whom she soon befriends, defying convention.
There are elements of del Toro's love letter to cinema and fable that should make this film derivative. There's not much flesh to the story -- possibly as a wink to that, the research facility is named "Occam" -- and we've all seen the Russia/US Cold War tensions play out on screen dozens of times.
But even as we see Russian spies and the kind of dancing eggs that are referenced in age-old yarns, The Shape of Water becomes something much much more.
Part of this is because of del Toro's visual crafting. The color palette is as consistent as a painted fairy tale book, and even as we are smacked by the reality of the era, we are still fully in a world of del Toro's imagination. The film exists in greenish hues, which are associated with reality. It also goes with underwater aquatic hues, and even Elisa's janitor uniform is a shade of green. And this makes the splashes of red that contrast it even more spectacular. Red is shown only when there are splotches of blood, or the imaginative, or love. Elisa lives above a theater that has plush red seats and immediately transitions from that to a storefront that has green-cast screens that show reels about the ongoing war. Her neighbor and close friend Giles (Richard Jenkins) faces opposition from the world and career in gobs of green. As he sits in a green diner pining away, only the bar stools which he sits on are aflame with his hopeful red. He endures row after row of a green Key Lime pie, and only when he allows himself hope does he mention a slice of Cherry pie instead. And of course, we get a hint of green in some good old-fashioned gangrene as well in another character.
The other part of The Shape of Water's success is of course, the empathy and emotional resonance that is helped generously by Hawkins' impeccable performance. Without words, she emotes far more than those around her, and any hesitance that she has in drawing close to the sea creature is not his alienness as others would perceive it, but more of a faltering in herself.
It is this generosity of spirit that sets del Toro's film apart from his others. He weaves in instances of what makes "an other" or "a monster", and although those moments are hardly subtle, neither are they ham-fisted. If Michael Shannon's villainous turn as the government henchman is a little too on-the-nose, it's because the would-be monsters of the movie are given more breadth in contrast.
Performances all around are fantastic. Jenkins is wet-eyed and lovable even without begging our sympathy. Olivia Spencer plays the predictable wingwoman, and the only regret she elicits from us is the whiff that she could have been even better with some crackling dialogue. Doug Jones, you wonderful man you, as always elicits grace in every movement and unvoiced feeling.
But of course, it is Sally Hawkins that holds it all together. There is something undeniably fun and yet artificial in these cleverly designed set pieces. Elisa's wallpaper has scales on them, and her floors have cracks so that the lights from the movie theater underneath shine through, making her room aglow as if it's underwater at times. Del Toro's camera glides on a crane or Steadicam to create an artificial fluidity. And yet it is Elisa's vulnerability and her strength that make this more than a period movie. Del Toro's emotional narrative makes his a story not for bedtime or for the Cold Era, but something imperative for today. If fairy tales could teach children how to treat others or to live with moral integrity, perhaps Guillermo del Toro's modern fable can just as easily urge us onto a similar empathy through Elisa's eyes.