Some of the first stories most of us ever heard were fairy tales. From the 17-century ones written in Neapolitan dialect by Giambattista Basile to the stories created by the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault, tales became quintessential to our way of telling and understanding stories, and also serve as proof of our common humanity. Although many are filled with violent themes – murder, loss, and deceit – we continue telling these stories to children, from as early as they can understand them. It makes sense: not only tales often carry a strong moral lesson but also keep good and evil completely separate, with no grey areas in between them. It’s an easy way to start explaining the world.
Guillermo del Toro’s latest film, “The Shape of Water“, is built in a way that’s very similar to fairy tales. Set in the Baltimore of 1962, it follows Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins, nominated for an Oscar), a mute woman working as a janitor in a secret US government facility. Her only two friends are her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer, also nominated), an African-American woman who acts as her interpreter, and her closeted-gay neighbor Giles (the – guess what – also nominated Richard Jenkins), an illustrator who often keeps her company. Life seems uneventful enough until the arrival of a creature in a tank, captured from a South American river by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon – no, he was not nominated, and we’ll tell you why). Sooner rather than later, Elisa and the part-human part-amphibian creature will connect, developing a strong bond.
The film is a wonder to look at. With precise and detailed set and costume design, it creates a picture of the 60s that is both glossy and in decay, that highlights the many possibilities of that era, without forgetting how divisive and pervasive it was. If the Cold War pushed countries towards research and the discovery of new technologies, people were still trapped by segregation laws and racism, or by the lack of gay rights. Del Toro does not forget that, and gives plenty of room for his charismatic supporting cast – here also included the marvelous Michael Stuhlbarg, playing am impassioned double agent/scientist – to shine, even if they do so within their comfort zones.
Hawkins gives a smooth and delicate – albeit strongly determined – performance in her interpretation of Elisa. Here’s a woman in the 1960s, mute and working as a cleaner: she’s used to living mostly unseen, having her abilities and worth constantly ignored by society. It is precisely because of how she was treated that she’s able to recognize the value of the river creature: she soon discovers their ability to appreciate music, to communicate and well, their fondness for hard-boiled eggs. From shared time to romance, all it takes is the final leap. Del Toro treats nudity and sexuality from such a natural and organic point of view, that it’s refreshing.
Let’s not spend too much time thinking about how a janitor would have seemingly unlimited access to a government’s top priority project. Just like in fairy-tales, in order for this story to work, one must abandon most of what we know as logical or reasonable. Yet, in spite of how well put-together this tale is, it seems to lack the truly magical touch of its director. Normally, del Toro masters the flexibilization of the limits between reality and imagination – think of his masterpiece “Pan’s Labyrinth” or “The Devil’s Backbone”. With children at their core, these films are superb in how, ultimately, they leave to the viewer the decision of what’s real and what’s an escape from reality, from the horrors of reality. Here, however, everything – including its characters – feels more literal, less dubious, no matter how imaginative the story might get.
Let’s take Michael Shannon and his arrogant and villainous government agent. Here’s certainly the less nuanced element in this whole story. While there’s no denying his interpreter’s talent, there are moments when his Colonel seems so stereotypical that all we can do is laugh. Instead of a missing eye, he has missing fingers. If we understand where Elisa comes from and why she acts like she does, the same cannot be said about him, and the end result is a seemingly gratuitously evil character. In a way, that’s perfectly suitable for fairy tales and their black-and-white divisions, but I’d hope for more than simply that.
Ultimately, what del Toro builds is a love story that displays as much of his love for magical creatures as it does to cinema itself. The music score by Alexander Desplat, also earning him a well-deserved Oscar nomination, perfectly illustrates both of these elements, creating an atmosphere that throws us back to yesteryear in a very distinct and magical manner. All of these elements, when combined, give us a solid and decent picture, but then again, not much more than that.
Director: Guillermo del Toro (also known for “Pan’s Labyrinth”, reviewed here, and “The Devil’s Backbone”.)