Guillermo del Toro is an ingenious crafter of dioramas, of which The Shape of Water, a Cold War-era drama tinged with elements of the paranormal, is no exception. Yet where Crimson Peak’s clutter of dilapidated, rotting luxury felt like the jumping-off point for the Mexican filmmaker’s imagination to run amok, here del Toro appears restrained by the concrete and steel of an underground research facility. The setting yields an inherent coldness that the film must work to overcome, and for the first time in his career, del Toro visibly struggles to reconcile his premise with its execution.
The film’s protagonist, Eliza (Sally Hawkins), is a mute woman who works as a cleaner in a classified government laboratory. Del Toro establishes her loneliness via montages of her daily routine that show her boiling eggs, swabbing floors, and, in the most obvious giveaway of her emotional state, vigorously masturbating each morning inside a bathtub. Limited in communication to signing with her co-worker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), Eliza largely keeps to herself, rarely making eye contact with superiors and expressing herself only in private.
Eliza’s routine is upended when the facility receives a new asset, a merman-like creature (Doug Jones) from South America whose ability to breathe on land and in water offers possibilities for scientists looking to give an edge to astronauts in the space race. The scientists regard the beast with fascination, and security head Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) shocks and prods it with revulsion, but Eliza finds a kindred spirit in the mute creature, feeding it her boiled eggs and teaching it rudimentary sign language.
Jones, long a muse for del Toro’s monster designs, brings all his usual gestural charms to his part. He gives the beast the timid but curious attitude of a cat, nervously approaching and darting back from Eliza in their early interactions. The creature responds to food with childlike glee, face brightening after biting into an egg and bobbing its head warmly toward its new friend. Hawkins, herself miming Eliza’s relationship with the world, expresses an immediate interest in the creature, gingerly caressing its tank and gazing pityingly over the wounds left by its interrogators.
The two characters work as radically different beings finding a shared connection in their respective isolation, but the romance that blossoms between them throughout The Shape of Water seems born only of narrative inevitability. While Jones is able to convey intelligence and cognition as the creature, he struggles to realistically suggest actual, physical longing without ignoring the innocent, almost childlike nature of the monster’s early interactions with others. There’s no sense of evolution to the creature’s relationship with Eliza because she so quickly falls for it, and watching the two be intimate is like watching a child smush the faces of dolls together while making kissing noises. The fewest steps possible are taken to lead them toward romance, which leaves the story feeling like an afterthought.
The film’s supporting characters also feel stunted, with most never stretching outside their simplest traits. Shannon cannot help but steal every scene he has with his wild-eyed menace, but Strickland exists mostly as a collection of tics: chewing hard candy, spouting religious proclamations, and reveling in the authority given to him over egghead scientists and the women who clean the facility. Even Michael Stuhlbarg, whose Dr. Hoffstetler secretly reports to the Russians while also expressing genuine care for the creature, is locked into a role that never changes once established, placing him well within strict genre guidelines as a nominal bad guy with a good heart.
Zelda’s race and Giles’s closeted sexuality offer preliminary character sketches that are never deepened or explored. Del Toro has defended the use of genre fiction as an ideal platform for making sociopolitical statements, but these characters’ apprehension over navigating a world hostile to them only reinforces The Shape of Water’s broad theme of loneliness. The film is undoubtedly beautiful on the surface, with a palette of sea-foam greens that lend an aquatic element to the sets and generate a magical mood that’s otherwise absent from what should be one of del Toro’s most fantastical movies. Never before has one of his works so blatantly showed the strings holding the narrative together, and the result is a predetermined work that lacks nearly all of the élan of his classic features.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 7–17.