Film Score: 3 out of 5 (Good)
Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Cast: Michael Shannon, Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, & Michael Stuhlberg
Synopsis: While working at a government laboratory, a mute cleaning girl, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), encounters a mysterious fish-man (Doug Jones) which changes her life forever.
An adult fairy tale set in early 1960’s, The Shape of Water slots the fantastical into an America still asleep in the 1950’s. A country still dreaming of communist spy rings and manifest destiny, unaware of the encroaching tide of free love, civil rights and feminism. Director Guillermo del Toro draws upon the setting and bundles together fantasy and romance with espionage and social commentary. The result however is an uneven concoction of sub-plots and narratives with a wanting second half. The Shape of Water is a good film but undeserving of the praise and nominations it has received in a year where other films, such as Good Time and Blade Runner 2049, were frankly better.
Swimming with the Fishes
Beginning with a scene of intense ‘washing’ in Elisa’s bathtub, Del Toro fiercely imprints onto viewers that The Shape of Water is a fairy tale for adults. It is a statement that Del Toro unsurprisingly delivers on through costume and set-design. Following Hellboy and Blade II, Del Toro has proven his ability to transplant the unbelievable into the real. Yet Del Toro fixates upon The Shape of Water being for adults. His efforts shear the film into two halves after a certain event in the film. The second part becomes engrossed in the romance between Elisa and the fish-man as Del Toro departs from auteurism into outright self-indulgence. It is a romance which Del Toro does not restrain to the platonic given Elisa’s bath-time sessions. During the alluded love scenes I had the unease of glimpsing something that had emerged deep from the internet search results for ‘swimming with the fishes’. The focus on the pair’s romance becomes a Disney story run amok, unbalancing The Shape of Water’s other plot threads and halting the film’s pace. Elisa’s close friends warmly accept her burgeoning affair with the fish-man . No matter how well Elisa’s cleaning partner, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), plays off the revelation with expert comic relief, disbelief crashes down as no one reacts with shock at what is diet bestiality.
Outside the American Dream
Every fairy tale has its monster, and in The Shape of Water it is the society of the early 1960’s. An America with a hierarchy crafted for the white man alone; fiercely restrictive, rabidly patriotic and diffuse with racism and misogyny. Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) is the immediate villain who embodies this WASP society. At the bottom are Elisa (Sally Hawkins), her neighbour, Giles (Richard Jenkins), and her colleague, Zelda, being disabled, gay and black, respectively. Despite unfolding fifty years ago, The Shape of Water is talking about Trump’s America today. Elisa, Giles, and Zelda represent people still struggling for recognition in America. The mindset of Colonel Strickland is sadly seeping back into prominence, if it ever did leave. The most rewarding subplot in The Shape of Water was Giles’ struggle as an ageing gay man to find companionship while having to hide his true self. Sadly, this element wilts away after certain events. Although the desires and troubles of Elisa and Giles are focused upon, Zelda is not given much attention. Zelda’s character remains both Elisa’s ward and comic relief where there was scope for something more.
Foreigner filmmakers working in the United States observe America with an intensity that native directors often lack. Del Toro, much alike Hitchcock before him, threads into The Shape of Water differences between America’s self-perception and reality. Giles is a gay man who creates adverts depicting wholesome American families while Elisa, perceived as a simple cleaner is able to outsmart Colonel Strickland and the whole government facility.
Belonging to an age that is already closing, Colonel Strickland is a doomed man. Hot-blooded and steeped in patriotism, Strickland is oblivious to the social change that the 1960s will herald, believing himself to be ‘the man of the future’. Strickland’s fervent beliefs are matched by his prejudices which are his ultimate undoing. Early on in The Shape of Water, Stickland is maimed. Del Toro creatively turns the wound into a symbol mimicking the portrait of Dorian Gray. The wound worsens as Strickland’s morals decay and his vision of America ebbs into a sham. Strickland’s arc was the redeeming part of The Shape of Water’s second half. Del Toro’s focus on the character adds a tragic sympathy to Strickland, complemented by yet another great performance by Michael Shannon. From the solitary sheriff in Nocturnal Animals to Colonel Strickland, Shannon adds a puritanical wrath to his roles whether hero or villain. There is not a flat performance from any cast member and Sally Hawkins has been rightly praised for her depiction of Elisa. Personally, it is the supporting actors who are best in The Shape of Water. Their presence adds both realism and humour to a story already laced with Del Toro’s witticisms.
Beyond transporting you into the times, the set design was a powerful facet of The Shape of Water. Atop an old-fashioned cinema, the neighbouring apartments of Elisa and Giles merge together into a theatre set as the pair escape into dance and music. The shared semi-circle window which conjoins their apartments links the pair as outsider looking in. The government laboratory where Elisa works was a believable fantasy of futurism mixed with Diego Rivera’s art style. Visually The Shape of Water is a pretty trip back into the 1960’s, but Del Toro does nothing original with the camera. At times, however, the visual style is lazy with background television clips seemingly belong to the Vietnam War which started two years after the film. These details, possibly included to create mystery became haphazard errors. This sloppiness spreads into The Shape of Water’s story of four different character arcs and an espionage sub-plot. Two of the arcs are never completed, the espionage sub-plot painfully slides into padding and a central mystery is developed and then quietly discarded. The Shape of Water is an enjoyable film, but not a great film and this year I have seen better.
By Saul Shimmin
For the trailer, see below: