We start with a beautifully lit underwater shot, seemingly of an ocean floor, as Alexandre Desplat’s gentle score floats effortlessly to us. We move with the camera into the hallway of an apartment block, then into the front room of a lady’s apartment, the lady in question asleep on the sofa, floating herself along with all her belongings as still the water submerges the setting. The beauty of this shot, of the setting, of the colour, of the score, could be described for pages and pages. In terms of style and direction, The Shape of Water (2017) is one of the strongest of the year. The Academy so too agrees with this; Guillermo del Toro picked up the Oscar for Best Director. The Shape of Water however is not a perfect film, and in fact it is not even a great film. It is stylish and pretty, but it lacks any real substance and is guilty of muddling along with its clichéd and predictable plot right to the very end.
It would not be surprising if it turned out del Toro plucked his characters, the majority of them at least, from a stock character book. There is the ultimate baddie who shows no decency ever, for reasons unexplained. There is that one who is bad at first (although never as bad as the ultimate baddie), but then becomes kind of good along the way. You have the friend of the protagonist, who is quite simply just a nice person but never becomes anything more than that. The actors all deliver their parts well, but the characters simply support the predictable nature which is all too apparent in del Toro’s film.
Sally Hawkins and Richard Jenkins give the best performances, and unsurprisingly play the most well-rounded and realistic characters. The former is, as you will know, the lead role, a mute cleaner by the name of Elisa working at a secret government laboratory. She ultimately becomes romantically involved with an Amphibian Man who arrives at the laboratory after being captured from the Amazon River. Hawkins is masterful in her delivery. There is a scene when she is describing her feelings for the Amphibian Man with frantic hand gestures and grimaced facial expressions, and it is this scene that lives long in the memory and emotionally leaves a mark. You see her isolation in the world and the hope that the Amphibian Man has given her. Her neighbour and confidante, Giles, is similarly isolated in society due to his homosexuality; this is engrained only deeper after a particularly vile experience at the hands of a diner waiter. This theme of isolation, of being different to “the norm”, is one of the bright parts of this film, but it is often explored in too shallow a way. Scenes such as Elisa describing her feelings are, unfortunately, far and few between.
Del Toro has created worlds of fantasy and fascination a number of times previously – his first feature film, Cronos (1993), gifted us a wonderful world of horror and intrigue. The Shape of Water has imagination behind it, undoubtedly, but it struggles to meet the heights of previous films. Even arguably Pacific Rim (2013) had more depth to its imagination than del Toro’s latest release. The Shape of Water is sadly a long way behind del Toro’s finest film, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).This film was beautifully shot, as The Shape of Water is, but it also had emotional impact and an original fantasy story set to the brutal backdrop of the Spanish Civil War.
The Shape of Water has many strengths and excels in telling a stylised story, but it struggles to be much more of that. Del Toro is clearly a great mind within cinema, and is deserving of his place among the industry’s most original and innovative directors and writers. This ultimately cannot disguise his underdeveloped and often underwhelming latest release.