Calendar dates aren’t crucial in fairy tales—but, all the same, you will guess The Shape of Water takes place in the early 1960s by the news images of civil-rights activism that flicker momentarily across a black-and-white console TV tucked into an attic apartment. It’s good to know approximately where the ground’s located, even when a setting, like this garret, is up in the air—even when the mood flows between elegy and romance, the music coils and pivots in a chromatic waltz, and the deeply colored gloom is shot through with the glistening of a magical creature from the wild. Let the film’s lonely top-floor neighbors change the channel at the sight of police dogs ripping into the dispossessed. Elisa, the heroine of The Shape of Water, and Giles, who narrates her story in voice-over, might try to exclude this struggle from their fairy tale, but brutal reality will seep in anyway.
Part Cinderella and part Beauty and the Beast, with a large admixture of Creature From the Black Lagoon and Dr. Strangelove, The Shape of Water might be summarized as the story of the love between a cleaning woman and a science experiment. She, Elisa, leaves the garret each evening to work the midnight shift at a military-research facility somewhere outside Baltimore: not a gleaming laboratory but a subterranean industrial site where curving, fluorescent-lit concrete tunnels are inset with clanking metal doors. He, nameless and inhuman, resides behind the heaviest of those barriers, chained in a saltwater tank so investigators can study his intricate dual system of gills and lungs. His captors—principal among them a government agent who enjoys torturing the scaly creature with a cattle prod, which he calls (in an echo of the Birmingham police attacks) an “Alabama howdy-do”—fear and despise this “asset” but believe he might yield a technological advantage against the lurking Soviets. Elisa, whose interest in the Cold War is limited to the piss she mops up in the men’s room, thinks the creature is fascinating and beautiful and keeps sneaking into the cavernous cell to communicate with him. He has a wordless repertoire of moans, roars, and burbles. She is mute but teaches him sign language, and soon discovers that the creature likes hard-boiled eggs and Benny Goodman.
It’s no mystery where this relationship is going, given that you’ve already seen Elisa masturbating in her grimy bathtub on a routine schedule, while a timer keeps her alert to the progress of her daily hard-boiled egg. Clock time, uncooked sex, semi-nostalgic dilapidation in grandiose spaces, and uncanny beings: These are long-standing preoccupations of writer-director Guillermo del Toro, and will lead in this film toward predictable consequences. The real question is whether, on the way toward the climax of The Shape of Water, the Birmingham police dogs will retain their integrity as solid horrors within a fluid fairy tale, or whether they’ll dissolve into an excuse for mere whimsy, plus some knockout production design. I had my doubts.
The Shape of Water is neither one of del Toro’s more darkly compelling fantasies, such as The Devil’s Backbone or Pan’s Labyrinth, nor a gleeful comic-book adventure like Hellboy. It operates in the slippery middle realm where filmmakers too often pretend to plumb the depths of myth, when all they’ve really done is toss off a miscellany of pop-culture references. You will understand my misgivings when I tell you that Elisa and Giles live above an old movie palace—hooray for Hollywood—and share a love for watching outdated soundstage musicals on TV. In this enthusiasm, they behave just as stereotypical outcasts are expected to do in films (especially Giles, a gay man in middle age), signaling the audience to extend an easy if condescending sympathy while enabling The Shape of Water to express approval of itself. Why, Elisa and Giles would just adore their own movie.