The Shape of Water

Year: 2018
Production Co: Bull Productions
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Producer: Guillermo Del Toro
Writer: Guillermo Del Toro
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg

A couple of weeks ago as I write these words I reviewed the classic Seven Samurai, in which I felt I had to apologise for not liking it. To say something as crass as 'it was boring' about one of the undisputed titans of cinema made me feel like a Philistine, and my reaction to The Shape of Water is much the same. To say you're not a fan of Guillermo Del Toro among cineliterate company is like telling everyone in the reception area of a brothel you have the clap.

The core story is actually great and befits Del Toro's sensibility as a filmmaker perfectly (even if – as I've heard since and laugh every time I think of it – it's a remake of Splash). It's about a creature that looks curiously like Doug Jones' character Abe Sapien in Hellboy and is even played by him. Del Toro insists they're not the same person and that The Shape of Water isn't a prequel to Hellboy, but while you can see the creature is as much an homage to The Creature From the Black Lagoon he must have known what people would think. They even both have a liking for eggs.

Mild mannered, mute cleaning lady Elisa (Sally Hawkins) works in a top secret Baltimore government lab and has a simple and quiet life. She gets the bus to her night shift job at the lab and uses sign language to speak to her friends, work colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and next door neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins). She religiously cooks two eggs for breakfast before setting off for work, runs a bath in which she studiously masturbates, keeps her head down and doesn't expect much.

But the creature, worshipped by the locals as a god in deepest darkest South America, has been captured and spirited away by the American government to the same lab. While they assess and test it for Cold War weapons potential, Elisa finds herself fascinated with it, eventually befriending it.

The Asset, as it's called, in managed by fearsome spook Strickland (Michal Shannon), an apparent psychopath whose tastes, habits and predilections are as off-putting as his severed fingers. Early on – evidently before realising how dangerous the creature is – it's bitten two of his fingers off, and over the course of the film after doctors have reattached them, his body gradually rejects them. They slowly turn rotten and black, only adding to his menace.

There's also a Russian spy in the lab's ranks, Hofstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg, doing as good a Russian accent in the Russian language as you've ever heard from an actor in a Hollywood movie), who's there to learn what he can about the creature for the Soviet government. When Strickland determines there's nothing more they can learn from The Asset and his bosses order it destroyed, Hofstetler teams up with Elisa and Zelda to sneak it out where Elisa keeps it in her bathtub until they can release it back into the ocean.

It's a nice and sweet story, and even when it turns into a love story between a woman and a fish creature it's handled with beauty and tenderness when it could have easily been inadvertantly creepy. You really feel for the cute, vulnerable Hawkins and it's easy to see what Del Toro saw in her when he cast the role. The details about her little, unassuming life – even her regular pleasuring of herself – really humanise her.

The problem with the film is that it all feels like three stories just jammed unceremoniously together. Moviegoers often (quite rightly) complain about villains that aren't fleshed out properly, but the story of Strickland's life – including buying a new car and his apparently very unhealthy sexual relationship with his wife – take up so much of the running time it's not about the central love story between a woman and a monster for long stretches.

And as her commercial artist neighbour who's going through a gay awakening and trying to engage with a world he doesn't seem to fit into anymore, Giles likewise gets an entire arc that has nothing to do with secret government labs, wondrous creatures or anything else – he just happens to live next door to Elisa. If there's some subtext that links everyone together other than just the way their lives cross and collide in the plot, I couldn't see it. It made the narrative feel half baked and disjointed.

Where Del Toro shines, as always, is in design. The period detail of the time and place is absolutely faultless, and within those constriants he sketches some images of stunning beauty, like when Elisa blocks the bottom of her bathroom door with towels to let the entire room fill with water so she and the creature can swirl around and embrace one another. Even the chamber it's locked up in before the rescue with its clanking machinery, reflections of water on dank surfaces and antiseptic green tiling is gorgeous and alive.

You can see he's put his heart and soul into it and loved having what looks like final cut (whereas you could see handprints of big budget marketing executives on films like Hellboy and Pacific Rim), it all just needed something more cohesive to hang it all together.

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