Before 2017, It seemed that acclaimed Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro was struggling to spread his ideas to a mainstream audience. After the success of the Hellboy films in 2008, his other two feature films Pacific Rim (2013) and Crimson Peak (2015) were met with positive feedback from critics but disappointing box office results. Things have taken a turn for the better this year with his new project The Shape of Water, which saw him receive a Golden Globe Award for his direction as well as 13 Academy Award nomination (including a nomination for his direction). A comeback for sure, but is the film worth the hype. While I did find The Shape of Water to be a very enjoyable film overall, I also struggled to find anything more to it beyond its ‘beauty and the beast’ framework narrative as well as obvious homages to the films that Del Toro grew up watching, the main one being The Creature from the Black Lagoon. However, The Shape of Water does manage to avoid a previous marketing error of another Del Toro project (Crimson Peak being advertised as a haunted house flick when it was actually a gothic romance) by promoting it as a love story rather than a ‘creature feature’.
Set in the midst of the Cold War in the 1960s, the film focuses on a lonely janitor Elisa (Hawkins) who also happens to be mute and is given access to areas within a top-secret facility to carry out her cleaning her work. It soon becomes apparent that the facility is housing a specimen which is not of their kind. This specimen is a fish man (Jones) whom Elisa comes across one day while cleaning and soon the two become infatuated with each other. But the organisation led by the sinister Colonel Richard Strickland (Shannon) have other plans in mind for the amphibian man by viewing as something that can beat the Russians in the race to space. A familiar tale of two outsiders finding comfort in each other’s company but the film is also a story about individuals who feel as though they lack fulfilment in life which is a theme highlighted with the inclusion of the character of Giles (Jenkins) a closeted toupee wearing artist who struggles with his own internal demons. To say the social commentary is on the nose here would be an understatement.
Thankfully as to be expected from a visionary auteur like Del Toro, the production design and visual aesthetics are gorgeous here. This is a man who harbours an obsession with detail whether it’s bringing to life hideous creatures from another dimension, towering robots in a neon-lit future or Victorian-era gothic mansions and The Shape of Water once again demonstrates the filmmaker’s talent of bringing a whole new world to life. A huge shout out has to go to Paul D. Austerberry (best known for his work on 30 Days of Night, Death Race and The Twilight Saga: Eclipse) for his Oscar-nominated production design for this film and I’m almost certain that he will take home the gold at this years Academy Award ceremony.
I was also a huge fan of the beautifully composed soundtrack from Academy Award winner Alexandre Desplat (who has an extraordinary body of work by composing films like The King’s Speech, The Imitation Game, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Zero Dark Thirty, Argo etc.) as well as lush cinematography of Dan Lausten (who has provided cinematography for films like Silent Hill, The Possession, Crimson Peak and John Wick: Chapter Two). He makes a great use of his set with strong contrasts made between the bright streets of Elisa’s neighbourhood to the dark and murky green corridors of the government facility. All of these combined really do transport this film back to its era and made feel as though I was watching a film of the 1960’s rather than a detailed recreation.
But despite my expectation that this film would shine in the production department, my favourite aspect overall ended up being the performances. This without out a doubt is Sally Hawkins’ movie and she completely carries the entire movie on her own two shoulders. Elisa is a mute meaning that she does not have a single word of dialogue which means that Hawkins has to convey all of her emotions through sign language or facial expressions. A daunting challenge for any actor is how they can express themselves without words to articulate and the fact that I was so invested in Elisa, someone who is incapable of doing is an achievement and a half. Not only was I was invested in her individually but also with her relationship with Doug Jones’ fish man (which I also have to stress how good the practical effects on this creature are as well as Jones’ performances). Neither of them speaks but their acting is so good that they don’t have to say a word to make us invested in their romance, and yes this is a romance between a mute and a fish man which doesn’t feel creepy at all. In fact, the film is actually incredibly romantic.
The supporting work here is also on par with Hawkin’s tremendous work. Richard Jenkins is just fantastic as Elisa’s neighbour Giles who is just so worn out with the unfortunate hand that life has dealt him as was Octavia Spencer as one of Elisa’s co-workers who provides some of the few, if rare, more humorous moments of the film. All of the performances are worthy or their Academy Award nominations and I also want to make note of Michael Shannon because he is just as good as the central three players. He plays one of the top men in charge of the facility who has some sinister intentions of his own. The film manages to divert expectations that we may initially have of this villainous character by showing the more positive aspects of his character with his family life back at home. But when he gets to flick that villain dial my word does he have a ball with his character even if it does border on overacting at parts.
I do however have to make note of some of the issues of the film. While the visual aesthetics here are top notch and the performances are at their A-Game, the film does come across as an exercise of incredible style over lacklustre substance.. There are some beautifully filmed sequences here, most of them taking place underwater, that don’t really match with the films basic narrative. It’s a very traditional tale (one that’s old as time perhaps?!) that we’ve seen before and I was a little disappointed to see a visionary filmmaker like Del Toro not rearrange familiar plot conventions and shake things up a bit. This does have an impact on the films third act which I found to be very predictable. There’s also a subplot involving Michael Stuhlbarg’s character and the motivations that he has surrounding the creature that keeps distracting from the central narrative which doesn’t really amount to anything. I felt like this was Del Toro’s attempt to add more of a political context to the era in which he is telling his story but since it didn’t really have a resolution it came across as being a pointless arc.
The film is also a bit inconsistent with its tone as we go from moments which are meant to be very sweet and sentimental, like the ones in which Elisa interacts with the creature through sign language or their shared interest in eggs, to scenes of grotesquely bloody violence. I understand that these moments are meant to portray the harsh realities of the era and the situation that Elisa and her friends have been faced with, but it also makes it difficult to engage in the more softer moments when the scene before involved the amphibian man taking a bite out one of Giles’s pet cats. If you’re a cat lover then this film probably won’t be your cup of tea.
Overall, The Shape of Water isn’t quite the return to form that I was hoping from an auteur like Guillermo Del Toro, of whom I’m a big admirer of, but like the central amphibious creature, this film is a gorgeous spectacle to behold. Strong performances and visuals elevate the film to move to pass a familiar storyline and a pointless subplot. It may be style over substance but can you really complain about it when the visuals from the likes of Del Tor are this good? Sean Moriarty