The Movie Waffler First Look Review - THE SHAPE OF WATER | The Movie Waffler

First Look Review - THE SHAPE OF WATER

the shape of water review
A cleaner at a secret government institute falls for a captured creature.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Guillermo del Toro

Starring: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Jenkins

the shape of water uk poster

Back when Universal were mapping out their now abandoned reboot of their classic monsters 'universe', Guillermo del Toro pitched an idea for a Creature from the Black Lagoon remake that focussed on the romantic relationship between the Gillman and the female lead originally played by Julie Adams. To nobody's surprise, Universal rejected del Toro's pitch, but the Mexican director has refashioned his concept into an original (I use the term loosely) film, The Shape of Water.

the shape of water

Set in 1962, the film stars Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito (the character name suggests the British actress may not have been del Toro's original choice), a mute cleaner who works at a top secret government institute, which happens to possess the most lax security in North America. When an amphibious creature (played by del Toro's go to man in a rubber suit Doug Jones) is brought to the facility, having been captured in South America (not from a Black Lagoon, Universal lawyers!), Elisa forms a unique bond with it. Learning that man in black Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon returning to his default menace after a string of nice guy roles allowed him to stretch his range) plans to dispose of the creature, Elisa enlists the aid of her friends, gay graphic designer Giles (Richard Jenkins) and fellow cleaner Zelda (Octavia Spencer), to break out the creature and return it to the sea.

When The Shape of Water premiered at the Venice Film Festival back in August, several in attendance began referring to it as 'Douglas Sirk's Creature from the Black Lagoon'. The comparisons to Jack Arnold's classic monster movie are certainly apt - del Toro isn't even trying to hide its influence - but such a label is a major disservice to Sirk. The filmmaker whose influence is most obvious here is Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Del Toro's film borrows the Frenchman's trademark red and green colour palette, a stark contrast to the teal and orange aesthetic prevalent in modern Hollywood cinema, and its protagonist is practically a carbon copy of Audrey Tatou's Amelie, mousy but attractive and finding joy in life's littlest moments.

the shape of water

It's become trendy to bash Amelie, but The Shape of Water is at its best when del Toro is playing in Jeunet's sandbox. Hawkins is a winsome presence, torn between kooky and melancholic, without ever crossing the line too far into either state. It's Jenkins however who gets the film's most interesting part as a gay man forced to conceal his sexuality while finding his hand-drawn art is becoming phased out in favour of photo-realism by America's advertising industry. The movie's strongest scene sees a moment of connection between Giles and a diner manager backfire, the most effective representation of the film's underlying theme of the phoniness of mid 20th century America's 'aw shucks' facade.

If The Shape of Water is a success as an anti-nostalgic social drama, it's a failure as a monster movie, and the least interesting material here is that featuring the creature. Del Toro doesn't invest enough running time in the establishment of the connection between Elisa and her amphibian amour fou, which means the sexual escalation of their relationship is unintentionally amusing rather than affecting, and an unearned black and white musical fantasy sequence really doesn't play with the level of charm intended. The thin plot is reminiscent of those many E.T. cash-ins from the '80s - in which Matthew Broderick always seemed to be sneaking chimps out of labs in laundry baskets - and there are plot points that rely on characters making decisions that seem wildly inconsistent.

the shape of water

The Shape of Water's most glaring issue is its uneven tone. Its potential to become a classic family film (one ideal for any parents wishing to introduce their kids to the joys of the monster movie) is overturned by del Toro's obsession with graphic violence and, most jarringly, graphic nudity. A scene in which Shannon's cartoon villain forces himself sexually onto his wife takes the film into completely different territory, and the fact that it's handled in such a throwaway manner makes it mean-spirited exploitation of the worst kind. I'm no fan of censorship, but perhaps the best way to view The Shape of Water might be in one of those conservative Middle Eastern countries where any sexual or violent content is excised from theatrical releases.

The Shape of Water is in UK/ROI cinemas February 16th.