IT DOESN’T REQUIRE a particularly incisive mind to figure out that Mexican director Guillermo del Toro is interested in––or perhaps better to say obsessed––with monsters, nor does it stretch the brain too far to establish that it is depicting monsters sympathetically with which he is principally preoccupied. In his first feature film, the 1993 horror-drama Cronos, the antiques dealer Jesus Gris discovers a device which grants its owner eternal life at the small price of a little uncontrollable bloodlust, yet remains the film’s most likeable figure; it is Angel, the brutal nephew of Jesus (played with delightful thuggishness by Ron Perlman) who emerges as the villain. And then of course there’s the exceptional Pan’s Labyrinth, which pitches the likeable yet grotesque and nightmarish faun––del Toro says the image came to him in a childhood dream––against the sinister Falangist Captain Vidal, who is hunting those who fought against Franco’s régime.
In an interview with the Guardian, del Toro tells the story of how he would wet the bed as a child out of fear of stepping on the carpet, where he would imagine “a sea of green fingers, waving, waiting for me to put my foot on it so they could pull me down”. It was only once he had made friends with the monsters that the habit was successfully stopped. But in The Shape of Water, friendship with those that inhabit the world of monsters evolves, or rather mutates, into something more. If the films showing in the cinema are anything to go by, it is the early 1960s or, if you prefer, the height of the Cold War, and mute cleaner Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) works at a high-security government facility where she mops floors and cleans bathrooms largely unnoticed and utterly unappreciated by those around her. Elisa, we quickly discover, lives a life of routine, and that routine includes a little ménage à moi (in the bath, naturally). “Cornflakes were invented to prevent masturbation,” says Elisa’s neighbour, Giles, as she eats her breakfast. “Didn’t work.”
Elisa, we quickly discover, lives a life of routine, and that routine includes a little ménage à moi (in the bath, naturally). “Cornflakes were invented to prevent masturbation,” says Elisa’s neighbour, Giles, as she eats her breakfast. “Didn’t work.”
The rhythm of Elisa’s life is disrupted by the arrival to the facility of the mysterious “asset”––a creature “dragged up” from the depths of a South American river and worshipped as a god by the locals. Unfortunately, the arrival of the asset (underneath the prosthetics is Doug Jones) heralds the arrival of someone you might call equally inhuman, albeit in a very different way. Armed with an electric cattle-prod and a book about positive thinking is the impossible loathsome Strickland (Michael Shannon), the new head of security, who won’t wash his hands after going to the bathroom and has little but contempt for the mysterious creature he pulled out of Amazonia. When he isn’t showing oily deference to his immediate superior, the equally hated General Hoyt, he is making racially charged or misogynistic or otherwise crass and reprehensible remarks to anyone who who happens to be in his vicinity.
What follows is a friendship and the beginnings of a romance between Elisa and the facility’s scaly new guest. Elisa, who was found in a river as an orphaned child with mysterious scars on her neck, has a lifelong fascination with water (she often finds herself underwater in her dreams) and feels drawn towards the asset who, like her, is unable to communicate through conventional speech, but nonetheless is sensitive and intelligent; this fact is lost on almost everyone who works at the facility or comes into contact with either one. The pair communicate through basic sign language, and Elisa brings the asset boiled eggs––the first word the asset learns is “egg”––which she places on the edge of his tank. The future of their rather unique bond, however, lies in the hands of Strickland and a marine biologist who may be sympathetic to her cause.
The Shape of Water is something like the lovechild of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s magnificent Amélie and Jack Arnold’s 1958 monster-horror flick Creature from the Black Lagoon, the eponymous creature of which bears more than a passing resemblance to the asset. But del Toro’s film has little of the humour or magic that pervades Amélie, nor a great deal of originality. Once you get to grips with the fact that the object of Elisa’s desires is a monstrous fish-man, what’s left is ultimately quite bland and by the book, not to mention earnest. Visually it is beautiful, and Alexandre Desplat’s score is good if not particularly memorable. But Strickland, a white, middle-aged male Christian who drives a Cadillac, is a cartoonish figure that Michael Shannon does well to render as believable. The plot itself unfolds predictably and even ends predictably, and includes a mediocre fantasy musical sequence that makes you yearn for the conclusion of the exceptional La La Land.
Praise is due for Richard Jenkins, who, as Giles, provides much of the film’s (little) humour, and whose own subplot involving the handsome waiter of a local pie restaurant is often more interesting than Elisa’s. Octavia Spencer, meanwhile, is solid as the voice of common sense and Elisa’s friend and coworker Zelda, though she remains thinly developed.
Praise is due for Richard Jenkins, who, as Giles, provides much of the film’s (little) humour, and whose own subplot involving the handsome waiter of a local pie restaurant is often more interesting than Elisa’s. Octavia Spencer, meanwhile, is solid as the voice of common sense and Elisa’s friend and coworker Zelda, though she remains thinly developed. And of course Sally Hawkins is typically excellent, particularly in her conversations with Giles, which lose no emotional heft on account of her character’s inability to communicate verbally. However the best performance of the film is given by Michael Stuhlbarg, the facility’s marine biologist, who also has the most interesting role and character arc; it’s really a crying shame that he doesn’t feature more often.
All this is not to say that The Shape of Water is a bad film, but it does boggle the mind to figure out why it has received quite so much attention and praise. While films like Amélie deliver a dose of electric current to even the coldest and most inactive hearts, The Shape of Water does so only intermittently, relying instead on its Gilliamesque look and moments of quirkiness to engage its viewers. It was Ian McEwan, I think, who admitted to having some sympathy with the view that magical realism is really just an evasion of some artistic responsibility. After sitting through The Shape of Water, you might just feel that he has a point.