Baltimore, 1962: Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a non-verbal woman working as a cleaner in a secret government laboratory. When she witnesses the laboratory’s new specimen brought in for study – a humanoid amphibious creature – she immediately forms a personal connection to it. When it is scheduled for dissection, Elisa risks everything to set the creature free.
Guillermo Del Toro returns with another adult fairy tale, to the great delight of his fans and an increasing number of general movie-goers. Unlike earlier masterpieces like Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone or Pan’s Labyrinth, this film is in English, and that has made it a much more commercial proposition and his best-ever chance at both awards and popular success. He deserves it: he has, a few near-misses aside, enjoyed a hugely inspired and creative career. He is without exaggeration one of the premier fantastists of world cinema history.
The Shape of Water is a warm and richly emotional film, one that bases itself around a woman who – through both having a disability and being an orphan – forms a deep and trusting bond with a one-of-a-kind and utterly inexplicable monster. It adds a lot into its set-up, providing moments of humour, drama, suspense and outright horror. It also reflects a lot of other earlier films from moment to moment: not just The Creature from the Black Lagoon, to which it may as well be a sequel, but also Jeunet’s Amélie, Spielberg’s E.T. and any number of period dramas about Soviet sleeper agents, or psychological thrillers, or closeted gay men in a time when they are not fairly treated nor understood. One of the great achievements of the film is that Del Toro can include so many elements in one story, blend them into one tightly developed narrative, and still give room for each angle and facet of the story to excel. This is genuinely superb filmmaking.
Sally Hawkins is positively incandescent in the read role of Elisa, showcasing profound and vivid emotion via a character who cannot speak but has an inordinate amount to say. Richard Jenkins is similarly impressive as her next-door neighbour Giles, an ageing and lonely magazine illustrator who struggles to be a gay man when there is so much hostility towards it. Jenkins has always been a superb actor, and The Shape of Water finally gives him a high profile role to really showcase just what a talented man he is. If Jenkins has always felt a little under-appreciated, that is nothing compared to Doug Jones – who plays the nameless amphibian to whom Elisa connects. He is a master of physical performance, having demonstrated his skill and talent in a string of prior Del Toro productions as well as a growing list of genre productions (most recently as Commander Saru in Star Trek: Discovery). The truth is that actors like Jones, much like his motion-capture counterpart Andy Serkis, never get the appreciation or accolades they deserve, simply because they bury themselves in their roles and their make-up so profoundly that as actors they become invisible. Both Hawkins and Jenkins have been showered with acting nominations for their performances here; Jones deserves just as much acclaim.
Other actors play much more functional roles, but they play them well simply because Del Toro has cast them so well. Michael Shannon is in typically creepy form as the odious Colonel Richard Strickland, who tortures and assaults the creature in the laboratory and campaigns for its immediate dissection. Octavia Spencer is a warm and supportive sidekick to Elisa inside the secret facility. Michael Stuhlbarg transforms the scientist Robert Hoffstetler into a surprisingly sympathetic and likeable character.
The imagery is stunning. The design is second-to-none. The orchestral score, by Alexandre Desplat, adopts an old-fashioned sort of French feel that adds an immeasurable amount of warmth and charm. There were few features in 2017 that both looked and sounded as good as The Shape of Water does.
There is, of course, an elephant in the room, one which needs addressing despite the overarching quality of the film as a whole. Del Toro chooses to tell his story about a woman with a disability: Elisa cannot speak. He does not simply feature it; he bases his story around it. Elisa connects with the Creature because, like her, it does not verbally speak. She teaches it sign language. Some of the film’s most powerful emotional beats would not work without her lack of verbal speech. It is one of the most productive and successful depictions of disability I have seen in a feature film, with one notable exception: the actor playing Elisa is not disabled.
This film represented a perfect chance to offer a leading role to a talented actor, either a woman lacking verbal speech or one who was deaf (the script could easily accommodate the change). It could have made that actor’s career, much like Children of a Lesser God made Marlee Matlin’s all the way back in 1986. It’s a real problem. It is estimated that almost one in five people in America have some form of disability. In 2015 the activist Stacy Smith went through the top 100 most popular films in American cinemas, and found that 2.4 per cent of characters on screen had a disability. Of those characters, only 19 per cent were women – or to put in another way, of all the characters in the top 100 movies less than 1 in every 200 characters, big or small, were women with a disability. With The Shape of Water Del Toro blows a chance to make a hugely positive difference. If Hollywood rarely casts actors with disability in general roles not identified as disabled, and then casts able-bodied actors as the characters with specific disabilities, what’s a performer who is deaf, or blind, or a paraplegic, or neurally atypical, supposed to do? In those same damning statistics from 2015 – the situation really has not measurably improved – 95 per cent of those disabled characters were played by able-bodied actors.
It used to be acceptable – even encouraged – in Hollywood for white actors to put on coloured make-up and play characters of colour. They used to be celebrated for it. Then society matured, and such performances were appropriately recognised as inappropriate and deeply offensive. The Shape of Water may be a impeccably produced feature film, but it is worth pausing to appreciate that for at least some of the viewers the film represents an increasingly long wait for society to mature once again.