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The Shape of Water, from Guillermo del Toro, is a beautiful adult fairy tale about a fish-man

The watery, bittersweet romance is rich, moving, and loaded with meaning.

The Shape of Water
The Shape of Water
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The opening shots of Guillermo del Toro’s gorgeous romance-fantasy The Shape of Water show Eliza (Sally Hawkins) going about her morning routine — boiling eggs, bathing, brushing her shoes, visiting her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) before work — in her dingy but charming apartment above the Orpheum movie theater. The camera pans down and across the theater’s marquee. It is 1960, and the theater is playing The Story of Ruth, Henry Koster’s biblical epic.

That movie shows up several times in The Shape of Water, playing in the background of scenes and advertised on the Orpheum’s marquee, and though it doesn’t serve as del Toro’s primary symbolism, its story lurks around the edges of his film. The most famous passage from the Book of Ruth is when Ruth, who is a Moabite, entreats her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi, to let her come to Israel with her, even after Ruth’s husband (Naomi’s son) has passed away. “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you,” Ruth says. “For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.”

The words are spoken between a widow and her mother-in-law, but most people know the passage as a familiar reading at weddings. The devotion it expresses — love that transcends the speaker’s home, family, and beliefs about the world — is the purest distillation of what it is to fall in love and give oneself over to the commitment that entails.

It can’t be an accident that The Story of Ruth is invoked in The Shape of Water, a film about the kind of love in which we both abandon ourselves and discover our true selves in the same moment. And del Toro imbues that idea with an additional insight: To love another, we have to learn to see the ways they’re different from us as well as the ways we’re profoundly the same.

In The Shape of Water, an unlikely love story unfolds

The Shape of Water, set in Cold War-era Baltimore, is full of characters who are different and lonely.

Eliza, besides being an orphan, is mute — she can hear, but she communicates through sign language with Giles and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), her co-worker at the research facility where they clean labs. Life seems to have passed right by Giles, a commercial artist whose skills are being phased out by a photo-mad advertising economy, and he’s nursing a hopeless crush on the handsome owner of the pie shop nearby. Zelda, already viewed with disdain by the lab’s white employees because she’s black, is married to a man she loves but who seems to see her as an inconvenience. Zelda and Eliza’s boss is security supervisor Strickland (Michael Shannon), an imposing and prejudiced man who carries around a cattle prod and is desperate to please his superiors, which he hides behind a blowhard demeanor.

Michael Shannon in The Shape of Water
Michael Shannon in The Shape of Water.
20th Century Fox

Strickland has traveled from the Amazon to the lab with a creature he calls “the Asset” (Doug Jones), an imposing water-dwelling creature that has gills like a fish but can stand like a man and has two breathing systems, though the above-water anatomy shuts down after too long without water.

The creature’s multiple breathing systems are being studied in the lab for their military applications by Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is also a Soviet spy. Hoffstetler sees the Asset as a marvel. Strickland, a bigot, just calls it an “abomination.”

But Eliza has always been the outsider, and she is curious about the Asset. Over the course of many furtive visits to the lab by Eliza, they develop a connection. And when the lab’s and the military’s plans for the Asset become clear, she knows she can’t just sit by and watch. She has to take action.

The Shape of Water is a fantasy tale with a central truth firmly rooted in reality

The Shape of Water is a fairy tale for adults (and has the R rating to prove it), and there’s a good reason it’s for adults. Young children aren’t born with prejudice; they have to learn it, and they learn from watching their elders treating those who are different like they are less-than. What The Shape of Water has to teach, however subtly, is much needed in a prejudiced world. It paints borders rooted deep in the American soul — between countries, races, abilities, and desires — with compassion and gentleness.

The movie takes its name from Plato’s idea that in its purest form, water takes the shape of an icosahedron, a 20-sided polyhedron, evoking the idea that beauty, and humanity, has many faces. Like most fairy tales — which often involve glorious and beautiful beings who take on disguises to teach craven people a lesson — The Shape of Water is devoted to reminding us that everyone is beautiful, and that it’s those we cravenly consider maimed and strange and frightening who will inherit the earth.

Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer in The Shape of Water
Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer in The Shape of Water.
20th Century Fox

Del Toro always renders his films’ social critiques in fantastical and imaginative images, and The Shape of Water is among his best, with a creature that’s both fully reptilian and strangely human, a black-and-white dream dance sequence, and underwater imagery that verges on the balletic. The color palette leans heavily on greens, ranging from muddy to emerald — I suspect partly because green is the color of the sea and partly because it’s the combination of two primary colors, yellow and blue. (In a terrific visual joke, Strickland buys a Cadillac that is teal, the “color of the future,” and gets angry when people call it green.)

And those images and colors are brought to life with a perfect cast. As a seething, disintegrating force of pure ego, Shannon is the definition of scenery-chewing. Jenkins gives one of the most empathy-stirring performances I’ve seen in a long time. And you could be forgiven for forgetting that Hawkins barely utters a word throughout the whole film: Her eyes and face and gestures do the work of thousands of lines of dialogue.

Fairy tales have happy endings; in The Shape of Water, it’s a bit more bittersweet, a fantasy that strikes a note of hope, and suggests that real love means crossing the divides we erect between us and those different from us. “Where you go, I will go,” Ruth tells Naomi. It is a difficult and beautiful dream — and del Toro makes it feel like just a bit less of a fantasy.

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