Brilliant performances, stunning visuals and overly defined fish butts all considered, the award-season favourite has very little else to offer.
The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro’s latest film, begins in a beautifully set-up, underwater wavering world, with a woman floating in an apparent flooded Atlantis. “If I spoke about it – if I did – what would I tell you, I wonder?” Richard Jenkins narrates as the camera pans through the overpowering assemblage of greens and turquoises, wafting over drowned arm chairs and sunken floorboards. The sequence is otherworldly and altogether magical. It’s that kind of swooning romanticism that underscores the film’s entirety, playing jump-rope with the line between the sentimental and the overly sophomoric. Some moments hit like a paddleboard, for better, like protagonist Elisa’s habit of masturbating in the bath each morning whilst an egg timer makes sure she stays on schedule (eggs are a common motif the film trots out), or for worse, like when a naked Elisa suddenly rips back her shower curtain and embraces her new fish friend before the scene cuts and we’re led to believe something along the lines of interspecies intercourse has just made cinematic history. Other moments, particularly the film’s second half, are a blurry mess and fall prey to the film’s overtly dogmatic agenda of unity and acceptance. Between the two, The Shape of Water is somehow both charming and flimsy; both full of character and bereft of much else. The whole film reeks of an enchanting hollowness that stinks more than the dank rot lining the basement corridors.
Elisa (played in a career best performance by Sally Hawkins) is a mute cleaner who mops the floors in the darkened underground tunnels of a Baltimore-based corporation during 1962. The backdrop of the Cold War is heavy and unavoidable, and infuses itself regularly with the central narrative. The company’s head honcho is the sadistic Strickland (Michael Shannon) who swaggers around wielding a sinister-looking, often blood-splattered cattle prod (or the ‘Alabama howdee-do’ as he calls it). Everything done at the corporation is pretty much top secret and everybody is paranoid about the Russians – which only gets worse once ‘The Asset’ arrives and bites Strickland’s finger clean off. Elisa, however, develops a connection with it – ‘it’ being a fish-man type of deal: anthropomorphised just enough so no one can feasibly claim bestiality – over hard-boiled eggs, Benny Goodman records, and sign language. The pair understand each other, neither of them able to communicate through mere speech, and develop a meaningful bond on the outskirts of convention.
The film looks and sounds like a dream. Production designer Paul Austerberry and cinematographer Dan Lausten each have a field day creating these atmospherically rich and blooming worlds. Alexandre Desplat builds a wistful, bittersweet and altogether ethereal score. The film is riddled with the colour scheme and undertone of Amelie, fused with Creature from the Black Lagoon if Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams) and the Black Lagoon creature finally threw in the towel, did away with the ‘will-they-won’t-they,’ ‘Ross-and-Rachel’ romantic rollercoaster, and just went and did it in the shower.
There’s a lot to be commended about The Shape of Water. It’s an auteurist’s wet dream – y’know, if they’re into that – but it’s undeniably graceful in how it goes about it. God damn, this film is pretty. But it has a narrative that lacks more lustre than it bargains for and becomes nothing more than vaguely disguised cliché once the halfway mark is passed. Whatever The Shape of Water looked like in its delightful opening is perpetually reshapen throughout the film until, eventually, all that remains is a indistinct fuzz of green hues and fairy-tale romance with a ticking egg-timer plonked on top.
The Shape of Water, directed by Guillermo del Toro, is released in the UK via 20th Century Fox Films, certificate 15.