Guillermo del Toro’s new feature is a waterlogged romance set above a dingy cinema: it’s murky as much as it is vibrant. Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins) falls for an amphibious man imprisoned as a lab specimen. She teaches him sign language, and executes a plan to free him from the lethal scalpels of science. As a janitor at the Occam Aerospace Research Centre, Eliza sleeps during the day to earn during the night. Hawkins plays the role with a charming grace: Eliza is a mute woman whose sole companion is her gay neighbour, Giles (Richard Jenkins). Giles is reliant on Eliza’s home-cooked meals, and is often the downbeat struggling artist unable to sell his Norman Rockwell-esque paintings.
Another of Eliza’s allies is her colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Spencer engages with her fiery presence, as seen in Hidden Figures (2016) and The Help (2011). In The Shape of Water, however, she mostly complains about her good-for-nothing husband, and re-enters the action of the break-out plan too late to really help. A profound friendship is lost in the narrative; emotional investment is missing in this respect.
The Shape of Water is a firm example of how del Toro effortlessly combines the soft with the gritty, the whimsical with the tragic. It’s Beauty and the Beast (1991) meets Free Willy (1993). Cinematographer Dan Laustsen adds obsidian ink droppings, creating visuals saturated with a shadowy oppression (apt for Cold War Baltimore). As alluring as it is, The Shape of Water cannot surpass the indelible impression left by del Toro’s signature Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Its narrative struggles to reach past familiar story constructs. Once the formula is found, no event comes as a surprise. The fish-out-of-water metaphor extends a little too far, verging on the predictable and unoriginal. It remains charming, but remains safe. Attempts to humanise the creature and anchor the romance jolts the narrative into a dream scene: an incongruous and unnecessarily indulgent La La Land dance sequence. Instead of inspiring as muses should, influences have smothered The Shape of Water.
Strickland (Michael Shannon), is the film’s villain. He’s brilliantly vicious but devoid of any complex audience judgement. Strickland is too obviously constructed for anything other than indifference. Shannon’s gripping performance however, like Hawkins’, works in the film’s favour. Strickland is the contemptible working father and husband, habitually crushing candy pieces between his canines, sweaty and manic with electrified cattle prod in hand.
Although the Oscars took the bait, del Toro does impress with his effective amalgamation of genres. The Shape of Water would make an impressive Venn diagram with its relations to a prisoner-of-war film, but also to romance, and to fantasy. It does exist as a homage to classical mythology and folklore, but one does question: would it have fit better alongside the releases of King Kong (1933) and E.T. (1982)?
Review by Anisha Jackson