THE SHAPE OF WATER promises a lot, and as such you might want to manage your expectations. Don’t worry, it’s good, but with such acclaim lavished on it from the Venice Film Festival onwards you might be expecting another PAN’S LABYRINTH. It isn’t that, but it’s still beautiful and beguiling in its own way.
When an unusual asset arrives at an American government facility during the Cold War, mute cleaner Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) begins an unlikely relationship, blossoming into a full-blown romance between the unlikeliest of lost souls. But can Elisa and her amphibious paramour (Doug Jones) escape their government captors and survive, together?
Here, water equals both sex and death. It’s certainly del Toro’s most overtly sexual film (yes even more so than CRIMSON PEAK, which lest we forget featured Tom Hiddleston’s bum cheeks) but being del Toro’s usual brand of twisted fairy tale, acts of passion beget a balance to be paid in blood, and though the actual body count isn’t high there are consequences to everyone’s actions. The Amphibious Man is seen as a key to the USA getting an edge in the Space Race (something to do with its bilateral respiratory system…or something) and this was very probably intentionally ridiculous. It’s really amusing actually about how quickly the Russian agents in the film lose interest in this particular “asset”. They soon realise that the Americans are desperately clutching at straws and don’t really have anything worth their while.
Sally Hawkins is captivating as Elisa, a bouncy, passionate dreamer who lives and speaks vicariously through film. Tellingly, all the women she idolises on the big screen have very distinctive voices, and they speak on her behalf. Elisa and her new friend are of course (slightly simplistically) made for each other – both are trapped by their physical forms, without speech and only able to communicate through one (OK, two) ways with each other. It’s not subtle, it’s not an especially new or profound take on a relationship, fantasy or not, but it serves this story well enough.
Scene-stealers Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins and Michael Stuhlbarg steal their scenes, funnily enough. The trio ground the story, lend humour and heart, and provide a nuanced take on a well-worn archetype, respectively. I’m also pleased to report the film features Michael Shannon at his Michael Shannon-iest. Government “security consultant” Strickland doesn’t quite top Vidal from Pan’s Labyrinth as del Toro’s most chilling villain, but that’s mostly because he uses a cattle prod rather than the blunt end of a bottle to kill people and the latter is somehow scarier. But when it comes to cruel, murderous sociopaths, it’s an apples and oranges situation really.
The Amphibious Man (who looks like a cross between HELLBOY’s Abe Sapien and Thane from MASS EFFECT) doesn’t quite end up being a leader in the del Toro creature pack. The Faun, the Pale Man and the Angel of Death (all also played by Jones) all somehow looked and felt more memorably original. What the Amphibious Man is, though, is a new benchmark in CGI-enhanced man-in-suit performance. Jones’ performance is among his most sophisticated as well, largely because he is being asked to be the least human. This divide between the other-worldly and and real asks you to suspend your disbelief at the central relationship a fair bit, but I guess you should fully expect to do as such in a merman romance.
This could be a dark horse for the Best Picture Oscar what with the established auteur behind it (which the Academy loves), the gorgeously-rendered stylised period setting (which the Academy loves more) and the frequent, indulgent references to the Golden Age of Hollywood (which the Academy loves the most). The Shape of Water doesn’t quite have the magic of Pan’s Labyrith but it has at least as much heart and knowing world-building as Guillermo del Toro’s other work in Hollywood. He still whips back and forth between fantastical wonder and grim reality better than anyone else, but I wasn’t quite swept off my feet by the love story at the heart of this particular tale. If anything, I wanted more of Richard Jenkins clumsily flirting with the pie shop guy. Egg? SSP