IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 123 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Mute Elisa Esposito, who communicates using sign language, works as a janitor at a secret government laboratory in Baltimore during the Cold War in 1962. Her only two friends are her next door neighbour, Giles, a struggling gay advertisement illustrator, and her co-worker, Zelda, an African-American woman who also serves as her interpreter at work. When the facility receives a creature in a tank which has been captured from a South American river by Colonel Richard Strickland, the curious Elisa discovers that the creature is a humanoid amphibian and begins visiting it in secret, forming a close bond with it. However, General Frank Hoyt wants the creature vivisected….
Guillermo del Toro’s version of the old ‘monster and the girl’ theme, in many ways a variant on The Creature From The Black Lagoon [and its two sequels] which he almost remade [and I suppose, in a sense, now he has, it has so many of the same ingredients despite its very different setting] is a heartfelt celebration of ‘outcasts’, and a lovely hymn to that which has [or should have] no boundaries: love. It often proceeds like a dream, taking place in a wonderfully expressionist version of the 1960’s. And yet to me – and I know this is going against the grain when so many critics seem to have praised it so highly – it’s partly sunk by characterisation that’s either exaggerated or overly simplistic, a seeming need to get its monster and girl together sexually so quickly that their intimacy [remember, this is essentially bestiality] doesn’t really feel earned, and certain situations and even plot elements that don’t seem to have been thought through and which just don’t hold water [sorry]. I guess that del Toro and co-screenwriter Vanessa Taylor were hoping that the fantastical nature of the piece would let us buy that, for example, the heroine is able to repeatedly sneak in to the monster’s sealed off room despite the entire building being on camera, or that the creature can just wander off into a cinema, presumably getting past box office [I guess it could have been through an unlocked door, but then what would be the purpose of having a box office if you’re going to leave an access door unlocked?] without being seen by anyone? Such moments just strike me as carelessness and certainly not worthy of a film which is in many critic’s top ten lists, has won some awards and has even been nominated for some Oscars, while del Toro has in some respects already been here with Hellboy.
Now I’m certainly not saying that The Shape Of Water is a bad film. It has many praise-worthy aspects, right from the very beginning. The opening is wonderfully magical, taking place underwater, with the camera exploring a submerged house to reveal a woman floating, while the narration of Richard Jenkins, preparing to tell us what happened to the “princess without a voice”, and Alexandre Desplat’s wistful yet mysterious music, add their own qualities. We’re then introduced to Elisa masturbating, something that seems to be shown twice for no apparent reason except I suppose to remind us that, yes, people with disabilities can have healthy sexual appetites too [wow, who’d have thought it?]. She lives above a grand old movie palace which doesn’t seem to be bringing in the customers much any more, and spends much of her time with neighbour Giles, who’s not long lost his job presumably due to him being homosexual. The early scenes with these two friends and rejects from society are enormously touching – more touching to me in fact than Elisa’s ‘romance’ with the creature – and we feel Giles’s pain so much when his feelings for a worker in a cafe are not reciprocated. I have to say right now though that Elisa just didn’t come across to me as especially sympathetic, despite the typically detailed performance of Sally Hawkins who was limited by the fact that she was not able to talk. For example, this is somebody whose best friend at work Zelda helps her out continually, even lying for her, but not even once, does she thank her!
Elisa soon forms a connection with the “asset” brought into the laboratory. Right away, one feels like cheering that del Toro opted to use a man in a suit with CG additions rather than motion capture, and the brilliant, sensitive acting by master-of-this-art Doug Jones proves that his decision was most definitely the right one. However, something’s immediately off with the character of Richard Strickland, who takes the creature from his home and who likes to repeatedly show him who’s boss, despite Michael Shannon being as strong as usual. Strickland is obviously intended to represent the white establishment against the respectively handicapped, gay and African-American protagonists who are pitted against him, all people who’ve been pushed to the fringe of society because they supposedly have things ‘wrong’ with them. However, the screenplay decides to not just also have him be another example of ‘toxic masculinity’ [yes, we get it Hollywood, most men are bad], but to turn him into a virtual psychopath, and a one-dimensional, cartoonish one at that. Just think how much stronger Toro and Taylor’s social/political point making [with obvious relevance for today] would be if Strickland had been depicted as more ‘normal’. They even have him make crude sexual overtones to Elisa, but of course by now she’s already ‘close’ to the creature.
After just three scenes of Elisa bringing the creature eggs, playing music for him and giving him a card respectively, the two get intimate, and it seems ridiculously early considering that this isn’t ‘conventional’ same-species mating we’re talking about here. Some vital connective scenes appear to be missing. But then Elisa is so desparate to get laid that she selfishly floods her bathroom, presumably hoping that it will hold seven feet of water by simply closing the door and putting a towel under it, and is unconcerned when water seeps elsewhere including into the cinema. And, after the big ‘event’ [not shown], neither of her two best friends seem bothered about what she’s just done. Okay then. By this time I was personally very frustrated that I just wasn’t involved very much with what was taking place onscreen, despite the huge number of critics that obviously were, and the rest of the story held disappointingly few surprises aside from a bit of silly deus ex machina stuff at the end and a Cold War subplot. The Americans, you see, want to use the creature to help with the space race by dissecting it [I think this was explained but it was very vague], while the Russians want to kill the creature with an injection before the Americans can get to it. Soviet spy Robert Hoffstetler is the man ordered to do the latter, but because he’s introduced as a nice guy right away, you just know that he’s going to change sides, this in no way should count as a spoiler.
This is still a del Toro film, so of course there are fantastic moments throughout, a sudden transformation into a black and white musical being one of the most notable. However, the scene is over far too quickly, so we’re not allowed to truly savour the romanticism of the moment. Visually The Shape Of Water could be del Toro’s most striking work, with great use of colour all over the place, from the green dominating Elisa’s apartment to the yellow of Strickland’s archetypal suburban home. Dan Laustsen’s cinematography is full of lovely swooping pans, while production designer Paul D. Austerberry does such a good job that you can, for example, virtually smell all the rot in those Terry Gilliam-esque basement corridors. Sound is expertly used too, like the way many early scenes tend to have something ticking away in the background, be it a clock or a machine, before this starts to malfunction as monster and girl begin to break down the barriers of ‘normality’. Desplat’s music is evocative throughout without becoming saccharine. Del Toro has obviously paid attention to how pretty much every scene would look and sound like, and the film probably does bear re-viewing just to check out all the great little details that one may have missed the first time round.
But to my eyes del Toro has made far richer work. It seems to me that he may have got tired of his films getting a middling reception or not even being understood, so for this one he and Taylor decided to set up obvious feel-good and feel-bad ingredients and characters along with blatant social justice messaging, and with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, so that no one would be confused. I could make a very long list indeed of all of the Oscar-bait elements that the two seem to have very consciously worked into the movie, pressing all the right buttons for all those voters who love to show how ‘right on’ they are. Well surprise surprise, it does seem very much that the film will win Best Picture. But, going against the crowd as I sometimes do, I think that all this gives a rather cynical feel to the whole exercise, even if the basic story is probably one very close to del Toro’s heart. I personally feel that he would have done a better job with this material – more subtle, more complex and more careful – if he’d made it a decade or two ago, in his native Spain. And once the critical craze for this movie has passed, I honestly don’t think that it will be thought of anywhere near as well in years to come.