06th Feb2018

‘The Shape of Water’ Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer | Written by Guillermo Del Toro, Vanessa Taylor | Directed by Guillermo Del Toro

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After A Cure for Wellness, here’s another heavily production-designed sci-fi with horror elements to give us the BioShock feels, from the austere early-‘60s setting right down to individual sound effects. I wish Gore Verbinski or Guillermo Del Toro (the latter directing and co-writing here) would go the whole hog and transport us to Rapture, because once again we have a talented filmmaker delivering a beautiful, disjointed disappointment.

The talented Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, a lonely, orphaned mute. She sleeps on an immaculate sofa in a grand apartment above a cinema with the sounds of classical Hollywood echoing through the floor. Just to hammer home the escapist point, Elisa spends her spare time with her gentle neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), watching Shirley Temple, Betty Grable and Carmen Miranda. Innocence in an era of vicious social persecution.

Del Toro wastes no time showing that Elisa is no sexless Amelie, but an adult woman with fears, desires and a strong work ethic. She’s a cleaner at Occam Research Center. Elisa is silent but her colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer) won’t stop talking. One day, a monster enters the facility. It’s Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), a military brute who brings with him the “Amphibian Man” (Doug Jones), a creature he dragged from a river. The oddity is lined up for extermination.

There are a couple of snags, though. Firstly, one of the members of Strickland’s team is a traitor – a Russian spy, no less. Secondly, Elisa and the Amphibian are falling in love. Elisa is desperate to rescue her slippery lover, so she hatches a plan to extract him from Occam and return him to the sea. It will not be plain-sailing and, this being Del Toro, there are buckets of blood along the way.

Del Toro has always been better with bold ideas and visual concepts than he has with sharp dialogue and subtle characterisation. In his best work, his sense of style, his boundless imagination and his gift for unpredictable oddness has papered over the cracks. The problem with The Shape of Water is that the basic plot is simplistic and predictable, and along the two-plus-hour running time there are too few great ideas to keep the momentum flowing.

The art design is undeniably astonishing, whether it’s the dilapidated caves of Elisa’s and Giles’ apartments, the sickly green sheen of a Cadillac showroom, or the rusty, Gilliamesque research facility. But the events occurring within them cover precious little new ground. I’d go so far as to call the core of the film downright clichéd: the pantomime baddie, the born-yesterday pixie dream-nymph, and not one but two hackneyed sidekicks, one a heart-of-gold gay beta male and the other a tell-it-like-it-is black BFF.

Strickland makes rambling speeches – strange, unpersuasive monologues dotted throughout the film – and he lusts for power, especially over women. Del Toro certainly harnesses the current mood of misogyny gripping the film industry: Strickland commands silence from his wife and gets a proper Weinstein moment with Elisa.

Then there’s Amphibian Man himself. It’s apt that he shouldn’t get a name because he is basically a wordless version of Hellboy’s Abe Sapien, both in terms of appearance and Jones’s delicate performance. It’s a more grotesque and animalistic character than Abe, and the ensuing romance is like a less developed version of the elven-amphibious coupling from The Golden Army.

Amphibian Man just doesn’t have a USP. I mean, he glows a bit and appears to have some rejuvenating powers (I hasten to add, a feature referenced in Rapture, the prequel novelisation to BioShock), but we learn nothing of where he’s from, what he feels beyond lust and hunger, or where he wishes to go.

I’m not clear on Del Toro’s world-building here. Amphibian Man needs salt water, yet he was discovered in freshwater. Strickland discovers him and then brings him to a low-security research centre – for what purpose? Apparently the only intention is to torture then kill the creature anyway, so why not do it where the cleaning staff can’t wander in and out at will?

Such questions might be overlooked if Del Toro achieved a consistent tone to sweep us along. In The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, his blend of whimsy and ultraviolence was powerful because those stories were told from the perspective of children. Without the child’s-eye-view (remember, Del Toro is insistent on presenting Elisa as an adult woman with adult urges), The Shape of Water’s tonal shifts feel sentimental, manipulative and cloying.

Del Toro’s “mature” content is purely cosmetic – blood packs and elaborate cruelty – but the plotting and themes are juvenile. We have goodies and baddies and love and hate, and little in-between.

The Shape of Water will scoop the plaudits and the prizes while Alexander Payne’s superior modern fairy tale, Downsizing – which has vastly more to say about the state of the world today, and offers a better love story – will go ignored. So it goes.

The Shape of Water is stylish, handsome and seductive, but thoroughly predictable. It feels long because the only curveballs Del Toro has to offer are surprising levels of violence in lieu of surprising plot developments. It has an insufferably cutesy sensibility combined with a sniggering smutty humour, trades hard on our sense of pity, and ends in the cheesiest way imaginable. The worst film this year? Probably not. But it’ll be hard to find one more mawkish.

The Shape of Water is in UK cinemas from 14th February 2018.

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