6.5 out of 10
Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito
Michael Shannon as Colonel Richard Strickland
Octavia Spencer as Zelda Fuller
Richard Jenkins as Giles
Doug Jones as Fish Man
Michael Stuhlbarg as Dr. Robert Hoffstetler
Lauren Lee Smith as Elaine Strickland
Nick Searcy as General Hoyt
David Hewlett as Fleming
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
A few things off the bat. Number one, the fable is one of the hardest stories to do justice to as it requires balancing just the right touch of whimsy and horror and usually more the former than the latter. Aesop made it look so easy, everyone thinks they can do it. Number two, Guillermo del Toro is an excellent teller of tales, a prime prerequisite for being able to tell a good fable. Anyone who’s seen The Devil’s Backbone or Pan’s Labyrinth should have some idea how good he is at melding the real and fantastic and mixing the darkest aspects of both into something new and enticing. Likewise, anyone who has seen Crimson Peak knows that his skill is not boundless, particularly when it smacks into the wall of romance. And considering how important romance is to The Shape of Water, that’s a problem.
It’s a problem for Elisa Esposito (Hawkins), too. Mute ever since the tragic accident that left her orphaned as a baby, Elisa leads a life of repetitive drudgery as a janitor at a science lab. Except this is the 1950s and the science lab in question is a secret government one which has recently captured a sea creature (Jones) direct from the black lagoon and is ruthlessly experimenting on it to find an edge over the Ruskies. Entranced by the creature, who can only communicate by rough squawks, Elisa determines to rescue it from its watery dungeon with the help of her next door neighbor (Jenkins) and best friend (Spencer). All she has to do is get past the lab’s stern chief of security (Shannon) and the Russian agents that have infiltrated and get out with her aquatic prince alive…
The genre background that would spawn a ‘girl falls in love with a fish man’ story is on view from the get go, not that Del Toro has ever shied away from his influences. This is the man who made Pacific Rim after all. One of Del Toro’s strengths as a filmmaker has been his willingness to plunge into new realms rather than just keep making horror movies, or at the least to make them from new points of view. Sometimes that means entering superhero land and sometimes it means taking gothic romance for a test drive. In this case, it means the post-modern European pop-fable of the type Jean-Pierre Jeunet spent the 2000s popularizing. From Alexander Desplat’s accordion-laced soundtrack to Paul Austerberry’s slightly unreal set design, The Shape of Water shouts at every turn that this is a fairy tale, a day dream, one filled with the awareness of its own falseness. In what other place could you get away with having a heroine live above a movie theater and constantly watching old Shirley Temple musicals? [This is not a bad thing, the same awareness propelled much of the best of La La Land]. More importantly, it signifies a lightness of touch and subject matter and a focus on airier things – yes it can accommodate death but not real evil.
But to an extent real evil is what Del Toro and co-screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (Divergent) have in mind. As much as The Shape of Water indulges in its 1950s setting for period fetishizing (beautiful fetishizing, but still), it also uses the timeframe to poke at the dark corners of America, at its racism, at its homophobia, at its warmongering. Del Toro approaches these issues with the outsider’s eye and it shows; when the general in charge of the secret merman project declare ‘decency is an export because there is no local demand,’ there is a strong hint that he’s speaking not just of the world then but also the world now. These are strong themes and are much more robustly bound into Shape’s story than the recent Suburbicon (which attempted something similar, albeit without the merman) as Del Toro is ultimately most interested in two outsiders finding solace in a world that doesn’t care for outsiders. But that’s a tough notion to meld onto a light romantic fable and Shape’s tone is often all over the place as a result.
Where it does work is often down to Hawkins and Shannon. Words like ‘soul bearing’ get tossed around for strong performances, particularly during awards season, but there is no part of Elisa that Hawkins doesn’t bear, giving us a thorough glimpse into who she is and why she wants what she wants and all without having words to do it. She doesn’t want to be alone and will take any branch she can reach to pull herself out of her life’s quagmire (Shape isn’t quite so desperate as that, being a fable and all, which is part of the tonal problem). And though Shannon has had many years’ experience playing the sort of hard-ass character Strickland aspires to be, he has his own vein of yearning gnawing out of him which Shannon takes full advantage of. Del Toro and Taylor have painstakingly built up all of their characters (except for Spencer, who is again reduced to sassy cleaning lady) to a degree that most fantasy films don’t bother with. Even scientist Stuhlbarg and neighbor Jenkins are realized enough that we can understand them and why they do what they do.
The only one who isn’t is the Fish Man himself. Because he is essentially alien and cannot speak, we never really know what’s going on in his head. To an extent that’s a requirement – he’s an aspiration, not person – but for a romance that is deadly, because it removes any empathy with the relationship we should be rooting for (the same problem that plagued Peak). The one-sided desire is a good starting place for a story but can’t be the end all of it, not if you’re actually making a romance. And at the same time, the diversions into the other characters’ backstories are primarily to make room for the wider social critique, a move which does not fit very well with the fable Del Toro wants to this to be.
On the one hand, the amount of good outweighs the amount of weak, which is usually the sign of a good to great film. That The Shape of Water only rises to decent is down to the fact that in this case the ‘weak’ is the hinge on which the entire film swings. ‘Weakest link in the chain’ may be a cliché but clichés exist because there is truth to them and Shape pushes its weakest link to the breaking point. A romance between two characters who can’t speak cries out for cinematic treatment and Del Toro is a great candidate for doing so, but it needs more feeling than he can quite muster. The audience must feel what is between the leads and must be able to graft that feeling onto themselves or none of it matters. One of those leads being a Fish Man isn’t a problem with that happening, but one of those leads being an empty void does. If only the love Del Toro and co. lavished on their merman’s look could have gone to his insides as well.
Ambitious, effective and often at war with its own impulses, there’s a lot to love about The Shape of Water; if only it came together better.