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The Shape of Water: Del Toro’s beautiful old Hollywood B-movie style fairytale sadly fails to completely deliver
February 15, 2018
Guillermo del Toro has often made films that defy categorisation – think of the horror-inflected fairytale of Pan’s Labyrinth set in 1940s fascist Spain. Similarly, The Shape of Water is a romantic fantasy set in 1960s America that simultaneously tackles themes of racial and sexual discrimination. You can’t fault the man’s ambition.
Sally Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito, a mute cleaner at a high-security government laboratory. A rare discovery is brought in from South America by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) to be tested and researched, with the intention of being used to the Americans’ advantage in the Space Race against the Soviet Union. The creature is amphibian but takes the form of a human, and Elisa sees in him a kindred spirit.
The film harks back to old Hollywood B-movies but del Toro’s mark is distinctive. Bookending the story are dreamlike underwater sequences with a voiceover by Richard Jenkins, who plays Elisa’s gay neighbour and closest friend, Giles. The design of the creature – played by Doug Jones – is as meticulously beautiful as any you would find in Pan’s Labyrinth. The attention to every detail is indicative of a filmmaker pouring his heart and soul into his project.
It’s a stunning film to look at and listen to. Alexandre Desplat’s score sets the mystical tone effectively, the set design is just glorious and Dan Laustsen’s cinematography is as rich and vibrant as it is dark and brooding. The way Hawkins’ face is shot smiling shyly or wracked with fear is gripping. She commands the screen simply through facial expression and body language, communicating more through silence than most actors can with reams and reams of words.
Jenkins and Octavia Spencer – as Elisa’s colleague, Zelda – give strong support but their Oscar recognition is questionable. Shannon is wonderfully hammy as the villain and Michael Stuhlbarg is, as always, hugely impressive. It’s worth noting this is one of three Best Picture nominees in which he features this year – the other two being Call Me By Your Name and The Post – yet he still has no nomination of his own, despite being a consistently reliable screen presence.
The problem is that these individually brilliant elements don’t make a satisfying whole. I struggled to invest in the love story because we never know quite enough about the creature. Tonally, the film is uneven – gorgeously shot scenes of love and fantasy and offset by moments of gruesome, wince-inducing violence that feels out of place. Other moments – such as a clumsy, unreciprocated pass at a waiter in a diner – feel forced. Moreover, no one seems to particularly care that Elisa has interspecies sex with a frog man.
Del Toro has been criticised for allegedly plagiarising Pultizer Prize-winner Paul Zindel’s 1969 play, Let Me Hear You Whisper, and French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie and Delicatessen. Whether these accusations hurt the film’s awards momentum remains to be seen, but ultimately I think Del Toro is being rewarded for orchestrating the singularly impressive elements that have gone into making The Shape of Water, rather than for making a wholly satisfying film.
The Shape of Water is released on the 16th of February 2018.
Words by Logan Jones @LoganOnFilm
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