THE SHAPE OF WATER Review: 7 out of 10 (Fish Feature with Finesse)
THE SHAPE OF WATER is the latest fantasy fable directed by Guillermo del Toro. The film stars Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, and Octavia Spencer in a Cold War tale told in 1962 Baltimore. Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mute who lives alone, working as a janitor in a secret government lab. Her closest friends are Giles (Richard Jenkins) who is her neighbor and a closeted gay man, and Zelda (Octavia Spencer) who is a co-worker and helps as her interpreter. The lab receives a creature for study--a humanoid amphibian-- brought to the lab by Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) to study and gain some benefit to science and the ongoing space race with Russia. Elisa forms a bond with the creature in secret. With music, food, and dancing, Elisa grows closer and closer to the mysterious creature. Once plans surface to kill and dissect the creature, Elisa and her friends set out on a daring mission to save the creature.
This is another film from del Toro that plays with fantasy and reality. However, the lines of drama and surrealism are far more blurred in this melodramatic tale of romance. The overarching theme here is the idea of forbidden love, living as an outcast, and loneliness. Silence is also a common thread here in the film, not only in Elisa's voice but also in the life of Giles, the secret lab, an undercover Russian agent, and even Colonel Strickland's sexual preferences. There is silence underwater, no? It is a fairly distinct thread the film operates on both in tone and in visuals. The film has a beautiful color palette with blues and greens and from even the opening scene you have the idea of feeling underwater-- like the entire movie was filmed in Atlantis. Desplat's score only heightens the visuals with classic themes of lost love from the golden age of Hollywood. Even for a melodrama set in the 60s, the film oozes a nostalgia for days gone by. Elisa and Giles gawk at the TV screen in several sequences, from carioca to Bing Crosby dancing his troubles away. It is an elegant and stunning cinematic experience.
It is also troubling, tragic, and full of hyper-realistic pain and anguish that is juxtaposed against these sequences. And it doesn't always work. Though Shannon is certainly imposing as the relentless Col. Strickland, the film struggles in moments to shift gears between the dreamy sublime and the threat of evil. And for all the film's exposition, there isn't much explanation. The film keeps the creature fairly ambiguous. Despite Elisa's romance, it is difficult to understand the whys and hows of it all. And the creature has (convenient) skills, abilities, and [ahem] characteristics that move the film forward but with only a line of dialogue to brush it off with. Do we need to know everything about this mysterious creature? No. However, the contrivances the film relies upon in the third act do work to create some false conflicts with easy payoffs. In the end, it is difficult not to look at the overarching narrative of the entire film and think that this is less of Guillermo del Toro's love story to THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and really wonder if it is just an amphibious adult version of E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL. The film actually follows the narrative of E.T. nearly note for note, save a couple of minor subplots and outcomes. And that is OK, but depending on one's idea of cinematic romance, this film might leave some viewers feeling a bit cold and wet.
THE SHAPE OF WATER is a beautiful film, no doubt. As a romantic tale, well...your mileage may vary. The fable's moral is to champion the outsider...the silenced voice. But the film doesn't really attempt to compromise or even complicate that idea. There are some solid performances here from all involved but none of the characters are particularly complicated. Elisa seems to be as aloof and mysterious as the creature she befriends. The only character that reverberates is her friend Giles--who changes, adapts, and becomes something else along the way. As intricate as the music and artistry is on screen, the storytelling is pretty blunt. Go for the artistry, just know the stock story may offer various levels of response.