We are—most of us—enchanted by fairy tales when we’re young. Stories of princesses and monsters, heroes and villains and magic. And then we grow up, and become cynical. These stories turn into just stories, they lose their ability to move us and amaze us and scare us.
We should all be thankful, then, for people like Guillermo del Toro, a director who did grow up, yes, but who never lost his sense of wonder and imagination. The thing that marks all of del Toro’s movies is his utter sincerity—what we see may be shocking, or at times ridiculous, but we know he means every bit of it.
And now he’s brought us The Shape of Water, an adult fairy tale if there ever was one. Sally Hawkins plays a mute woman who works as a custodian in a large government laboratory in the 1950s. One day she happens upon a kind of fish man being held captive in a cavernous secret room. The U.S. government has taken him from the Amazon to learn anything they can about him because for whatever reason they think it might help them against the Soviets in the space race. The fish man is essentially nonverbal, but then so is Hawkins, and she sees something in him that brings them together. And, in a way, she falls in love.
Del Toro loves to create creatures, and this fish man is an extraordinary piece of work, both feral and sympathetic at the same time. And Hawkins’ ability to express so much with just her face is equally extraordinary. The acting throughout the film is impeccable, with Hawkins and Richard Jenkins especially deserving all of the attention Oscar has given them.
How the story unfolds, I won’t say, because there’s so much joy in seeing all of del Toro’s genre-bending, and his clear love of the movies themselves. The one thing I can say is that you should leave your cynicism at the door-- there’s no place for it here in this strange and beautiful story of connection, understanding, and love.