The Shape of Water – movie review

by James Robins / 24 January, 2018
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It’s brilliantly directed and acted, but there’s something fishy about the romance.

The latest film from fantasist and fabulist Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water is awash in green. It’s the colour of the uniforms worn by Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) and Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer), as they scrub the loos of a secret government facility. Ditto the sliced key lime pie given to Elisa by her friendly neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), a failed adman whose Norman Rockwell-esque sketches sell nothing. Green is the colour of a brash Cadillac driven by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), a government agent with a cattle prod and an Alabama drawl.

Above all, it is the colour of the scales on a humanoid amphibian fished out of the Amazon by Strickland and kept shackled in the facility’s dank silo. This lithe and frilled creature (played by del Toro regular Doug Jones) is wild, chomping off its captors’ fingers whenever possible, and this being the 1960s, it’s little wonder the Soviets want it, too.

However, its tastes change when Elisa, lured by its howls of pain, stumbles across the prison lab. She brings it hard-boiled eggs, plays Glenn Miller and amuses it by dancing like Ginger Rogers with her mop and bucket.

Both she and the captive creature are afflicted (Elisa, who is mute, bears two scars on her neck that look like gills) and it is precisely because of that shared experience that they form a delicate, wordless bond of love, which is consummated in a bathroom flooded to the brim with green water. And I do mean consummated.

As he mentioned in his speech when accepting the Best Director award at this month’s Golden Globes, del Toro is in thrall to monsters. He knows that the most terrifying kinds are always of our own making. His work is littered with them, and their satirical or metaphorical force can be overpowering, as in The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth.

He’s had Jones in aquatic mode before, as amphibious man Abe Sapien in his two Hellboy movies, and for The Shape of Water, del Toro has pinched elements from two famed movie monsters: the aquatic man from 1954 B-movie shocker Creature from the Black Lagoon and the general story from the fairy tale and cartoon Beauty and the Beast. Neither of those films was intended to be taken altogether seriously, and yet del Toro weighs down The Shape of Water with earnestness and sincerity.

Yet his inspiration does not match his aspiration. The film is magical and beguiling in places and certainly empathetic, pitching the maligned and slighted against sadistic powers. Everyone present is an outsider: Elisa and the merman; Giles, who is gay; African-American Zelda, to whom Strickland spits about “your people”.

Del Toro’s capacity for compassion and redemption is never in doubt. But this is still a film about fish sex. Neither the director’s considerable dramatic skill nor Hawkins’s wonderfully expressive and seductive performance can command our suspension of disbelief sufficiently to accept this peculiar pairing or stifle our baffled giggles. It’s only enough to make you green around the gills.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★1/2

This article was first published in the January 27, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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