The immediate worldwide acclaim of ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ (2006) solidified Guillermo del Toro’s reputation as a master of the fantasy genre. With a taut story intermingling with utterly breathtaking elements of fantasy combined with a sure sense of reality, the film put del Toro on the mainstream cinema map for good, after years of delightfully experimental filmmaking. Much of that carries over to his latest offering, ‘The Shape of Water’ (2017), and indeed the acclaim it has received is a testament to the quality and empathy it offers to audiences all over. In a world rife with xenophobia, mistrust, and bloodshed across different races and borders, it is extraordinarily significant that a film which attempted to redefine ‘monsters’ and portrays a love that transcends our very species, was awarded the highest honor at the world’s most famous event that celebrates and venerates cinema.
The film takes place in a secret United States government research facility located in Baltimore at the peak of the Cold War. Our protagonist is Elisa Esposito, a mute cleaner who works at the said laboratory and lives by herself, suffering from crippling loneliness. As a baby, she was found with her throat slashed by the side of the river, and although she was apparently cured of the slashes, she was unable to speak for the rest of her life. Her neighbor and friend are Giles, played by Richard Jenkins, a struggling artist who, much like Elisa, also feels isolated from the rest of the world through the lack of success he receives from his illustrations as well as his being closeted owing to homophobia prevalent at the time. Giles is also the film’s narrator, whose role is quite significant at both the beginning as well as at the end. Elisa also has a friend at work, Zelda, portrayed by Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer, who has known her for a decade. She constantly looks out for Elisa, is her main confidant as well as her interpreter, much like Giles, although she is arguably better.
Things change drastically when an ‘asset’ is brought in the facility from the depths of the Amazon, and the covert facility becomes even more clandestine in its activities. A new head of security is hired, Richard Strickland, played with considerable venom by Michael Shannon, and it is his callous, soulless portrayal that is pitted against the more receptive, more emotional presence of the Amphibian Man, played with aplomb by veteran Doug Jones, and this equation is what ultimately offers viewers a renewed perspective on who a monster is truly made up of. Elisa finds an unlikely connection to the Amphibian Man, forming a shared bond of loneliness and lack of understanding from the people around them.
She befriends him, and their friendship blossoms in the unexpected surroundings of the laboratory. Because of the film’s multi-layered narrative, it is able to tackle several themes simultaneously. It works as a political drama, as the film takes place during the Cold War, and the Amphibian Man presents yet another opportunity for the United States and the Soviet Union to one-up each other with little regard for human rights. It also works as a heist film, with the unlikely group of Elisa, Zelda, and Giles, assisted by Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, rescuing the Amphibian Man from certain death by vivisection. This development is politically significant from a humanist perspective, as Hoffstetler is actually Dimitri Mosenkov, a Soviet spy, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, who was assigned by his handlers to kill the creature and yet chooses to help the dubious group in their mission at great risk. What follows is the Amphibian Man’s gradual recovery, his acclimatization to the surroundings, and a seemingly improbable yet beautiful romantic relationship between him and Elisa. Elisa finally seems to find someone who understands her pain, and who sees her for who she is and still loves her. The film rushes to its climax as the plan to release the Amphibian Man is put to fruition with Strickland refusing to buckle down and therefore, proving to be a worthy antagonist until the end.