In her role as Elisa Esposito, the mute cleaner who falls in love with the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) held in the government facility where she works, Sally Hawkings conveys passion and compassion without uttering a word. This feat is particularly impressive because Elisa shares several scenes with Richard Strickland, a cold war era government official played by Michael Shannon at his Michael Shannon-est. His character boils with barely contained contempt until finally exploding in volcanic rage at his perceived inferiors, but Elisa’s anger and ardor outpaces Strickland’s bloviating.
The clash between insiders and outcasts drives Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water, even more so than the romance plot that provides the film’s most memorable moments. A powerful man in the the early 60s US government, who lives with his attractive family in a fully mod-conned home, Strickland knows only the privilage he confuses for morality. To justify his lack of compassion toward the Amphibian Man, Strickland reminds Elisa and her partner Zelda (Octavia Spencer) that “the Lord looks like you and me,” before realizing that he’s addressing a mute and a black woman and clarifies: “A little more like me than you.”
But while Strickland’s certainty makes him competitive and cruel, Elisa’s condition allows her to bond with Zelda, with a gay struggling artist played by Richard Jenkins, with a Russian spy who puts love of nature over love of country, and with the Amphibian Man himself. Keenly aware of how her conditon marks her as inhuman to people like Strickland, Elisa finds other signifiers of humanity, those that Del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor highlight throughout the film: a love of art, sexual desire, basic empathy.
Del Toro further rebukes Strickland’s egoism in the way he presents the film’s world. Using almost nothing but tracking shots, holding still for only seconds at a time, Del Toro floats his camera along the sets that cinematographer Dan Laustsen bathes in greens and yellows and blues, replicating the Amphibian Man’s habitat. Strickland, and the US government that employs him or the Soviet forces who oppose him, may think that he runs the world, but every time the camera drifts from an overflowing tub to a spilled glass to a rain-soaked window pain, we’re told just how much these forces are out of their depth.
I know I’ve hardly said anything about the romance aspect, which is, obviously, a pretty important part of a romance story. But it’s the way that Del Toro reimagines power structures that makes the romance work. An unconventional love story, in part, shows us how loveless our conventions can be. The Shape of Water creates a world in which these conventions get washed away.