For a movie centered around a woman who does not speak, “The Shape of Water” has a strong voice. Elisa (Sally Hawkins, “Maudie”) is a mute cleaning lady at a research facility in the 1960s. She lives a lonely life, mostly limiting her interactions to her closeted neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins, “Step Brothers”) and coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer, “Hidden Figures”). One day a mysterious specimen arrives at the facility along with an uber-masculine security officer, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, “Nocturnal Animals”). Elisa offers the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones, “Hellboy”) — nicknamed the Asset — kindness and friendship and, in return, he provides the companionship she misses. When Cold War pressures threaten the Amphibian Man’s life, Elisa takes the matter into her own hands with people who feel a moral calling to help.
“The Shape of Water” has breathtaking cinematography that sets the fantastical mood. Director Guillermo Del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) uses visual elements to give a voice to two characters who do not speak, Elisa and the Amphibian Man. The clever use of water to connect scenes creates a flow to the film as it weaves among the many sides that want control of the unknown specimen and its suspected powers. Del Toro also immerses the characters in old-timey films, settings and music to add to the romantic atmosphere.
The soundtrack draws from classics like “You’ll Never Know” from the 1943 movie “Hello, Frisco, Hello” and other nostalgic songs. At times, “The Shape of Water” plays like a musical, complete with tapdance numbers and a re-creation of the famous dance between Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Despite limited dialogue from its main character, the film is still able to capture the sentimental tone of a musical without the constrictions of needing to break into song and dance every other scene.
Since Elisa and the Amphibian Man speak through sign language, the supporting cast provides the humor, fills the empty spaces with words and gives helpful interpretations of Elisa’s gestures. Zelda and Giles give insight into Elisa’s quiet demeanor, shielding her innocent and good intentions from evil forces. Every heartfelt motion from Elisa is matched with a well-timed quip from her two friends. To balance out these kind-hearted characters, Shannon’s Strickland brings all the bearings of toxic masculinity and abuse of power. Shannon exudes this toxicity with every calculating stare and bite of his ever-present green candies.
The supporting cast does a tremendous job, but the majority of credit goes to Sally Hawkins and her spell-binding performance. Unlike previous actors who have played disabled characters, Hawkins turns Elisa’s muteness into a strength, not a pantomime — using her hand motions to emphasize the tenderness and courage of this woman. Purely through facial expressions and physical actions, Hawkins conveys the loneliness of an outcast and the joy of finding camaraderie in unexpected corners of the world.
In fact, “The Shape of Water” should serve as a playbook for how to treat “others”: with love, kindness and an open mind. This message coupled with outstanding filmmaking is why the final scene will leave everyone breathless with its pureness and beauty — enough to believe for a second that nothing evil could ever touch this Earth again.