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.