Sally Hawkins is Elisa, a mousy mute who lives in an apartment in Baltimore above the Orpheum cinema. Her neighbour is an elderly has-been advertising artist Giles (Richard Jenkins), and he is her friend and confidante. Together they hang out at his place, watching old musicals and classic films. Whenever reality intrudes, in the shape of news footage showing black protestors being water gunned, Giles wants to change channels immediately. On a different TV screen in a shop window behind Elisa we catch a glimpse of a US helicopter flying over a Vietnamese field, but other than this image the war is never alluded to. Initially, it seems that del Toro, like his characters, wants to keep reality firmly at bay.
Elisa works alongside Zelda (Octavia Spencer) as a cleaner at the Occam Aerospace Research Centre. Zelda is Elisa’s friend, protector and translator, her skills at sign language a useful ploy for avoiding the scribbling onto paper normally needed. They mop up after the scientists, cleaning up after their experiments and their attempts to pee. One day Agent Strickland (Michael Shannon) arrives at the centre with an unusual ‘asset’ in a steel container full of water. Inside is some kind of merman/creature of the deep – and in fact it looks a lot like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Although apparently aggressive, it turns out that the asset (played by del Toro regular Doug Jones) is a kind soul who communicates with Elisa. She brings him boiled eggs and they listen to music together and a romance of sorts burgeons. These two mute beings hear and understand each other better than all the talkers in the film (Zelda’s marriage being a prime and funny example).
One of the men in charge of the creature is Dr Hofstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), yet Bob Hofstetler is actually Dimitri, a Russian agent who has infiltrated the centre to glean info for the reds in the race for space. Is he a baddy? Will Elisa be able to save her scaly beau? Who can she rely on? How can this romance last?
All of these questions are answered satisfactorily by del Toro, who wrote the screenplay with Vanessa Taylor. There is so much to like about this film and it works on all the levels the director has layered it with. There are plenty of nods to other films, the most obvious being the aforementioned Creature from the Black Lagoon, but there are close connections with a more recent film: Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck. Both share a love of cinema, have a mute protagonist and share a fairy tale concept (Wonderstruck with its wolves in the woods and The Shape of Water with The Little Mermaid). They both render a time and place with exquisite detail; both are positively saturated with signs of the times they portray. Yet this film has more than a touch of Spielberg, with the kidnapping and release of a strange alien creature (E.T.) and the cold war era of Bridge of Spies. And del Toro imbues his film with the warmth that we see in Spielberg.
Sally Hawkins has built her career playing diminutive heroines who are mousy on the outside but contain a leonine heart and this is the acme of the type. Del Toro has amassed an incredibly strong cast to play alongside her and the performances from all do not disappoint. This is a charming, beautifully filmed movie that appeals on many levels and is a song to cinema and to love.