Explaining the category under which Guillermo del Toro’s film The Shape of Water falls isn’t easy. A fantasy/drama. A cold-war sci-fi. A romantic horror. Even a fairy tale. In a way, it’s a combination of all. As Richard Jenkins’ voice over tells us, the film is also, “A tale of love and loss, and the monster who tried to destroy it all.” Explaining things isn’t easy.
It’s Baltimore in the early 60’s, probably ‘62. Black and white television in both the homes and in the shop store windows offers glimpses of JFK and Mr. Ed, though when some children ask their mother whether they can watch Bonanza, she tells them it’s much too violent.
Elisa Esposito (a career high for Sally Hawkins) works as a cleaner at an Aerospace Research Center. She loves films, especially musicals, which is convenient because her apartment is above a movie theatre. She delights being in the company of her gay commercial artist neighbor, Giles (a hugely likable Richard Jenkins). Together they watch scenes from old Hollywood films, particularly ones with Betty Grable, Carmen Miranda, and Shirley Temple tap dancing with Mr. Bojangles. Elisa is mute, the result of a childhood accident that has left scars on the side of her neck, but she can hear perfectly well. On her way to work one morning she hears the click of her heels on the wooden floorboards. She takes a minute to do a little Mr. Bojangles inspired tap.
The research center where Elisa cleans becomes the home to a new, secret ‘asset.’ She and her best friend at work, a highly verbose Zelda (Octavia Spencer, never better) who more than makes up for Elisa’s silence, observe something that is whisked into a private sector under suspicious circumstances by the intimidating Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon, a threatening presence that never lets up). With curiosity getting the better of her, Elisa sneaks in to the private facility where this ‘asset’ is currently kept. She then discovers the secret.
The ‘asset’ is in fact an amphibious humanoid, a creature from the black lagoons of the South American jungles, who, we learn, is considered by the Amazonian locals as a god. The Amphibious Man (Doug Jones) is cruelly tested for America’s advancement in the space race, brutally abused by Strickland with continual beatings from his black baton. Strickland calls it his Alabama Howdy Doody. “It’s an animal,” he declares of the uncooperative creature. “Just keeping it tame.”
After frequent late night visits from Elisa, who secretly brings the creature hard boiled eggs to eat and plays it music from her Benny Goodman album collection on a small, portable record player, the cleaner and her amphibious man develop a relationship that will eventually turn into a romance. Once it’s learned that Strickland will soon terminate the research and eventually kill the creature rather than return it back to its watery home, Elisa, along with co-worker Zelda and good neighbor Giles, help the amphibious man escape. It hides in Elisa’s apartment, taking refuge in her bathtub until the time comes to release him back to the sea. There’s more, but that’s where the thriller aspect comes in.
Director del Toro has said that the inspiration for his film came from memories of the 1954 monster movie, Creature from The Black Lagoon (which his Amphibious Man resembles) and his childhood fantasy of watching actress Julia Adams mate with the creature. In The Shape of Water, del Toro finally makes it so. Fantasy fulfilled. Though despite the lush, swooning, romantic quality of the director’s approach, and the touching reasons for having the lonely mute Elisa fall for the creature, there’s a chance not all audiences are going to take to watching the woman disrobe in the bathroom before joining it in the tub where the shower curtain is pulled back for privacy.
Despite the all-encompassing feel of a sensuous beauty and a romantic heart that wraps itself around the film, if, by now, you’ve already had trouble buying the premise, the film can’t help but seem simply odd. When Elisa fantasizes of being in a black and white Hollywood musical, dancing on a set with a shiny black floor that would work for Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell in Broadway Melody of 1940, the partner twirling her is not an Astaire wannabe in top hat and tails but the creature. What’s in danger of looking look like a comical skit is here treated as a dreamy, romantic interlude between a girl and her literal fish-out-of-water.
There’s already an Oscar buzz surrounding del Toro’s romantic fantasy drama, with a momentum that continues to build. It won the Golden Lion best film award at the 74th Venice International Film Festival, and has earned praise in many critical quarters, particularly for Hawkins’ performance, which comes as no surprise. Sally Hawkins is an extraordinary performer (January 2018 will see her return to American screens as the engaging mother in Paddington 2) and certainly here the praise for her performance as the mute is earned, but when it comes to the film and its lush, tender, swooning romance, I’m clearly in the minority when thinking director del Torro has nothing but water on the brain.
Despite the film’s luxuriant, dark cinematography, the atmospheric production design of the early sixties, and the performances of all principle players, the affair never convinced. As witnessed at the Venice Film Festival, many seem to willingly accept the premise and fully embrace, without question, the idea of a lonely woman having sex and falling in love with the scaly fish man from a black lagoon. But others, like Elisa’s bathroom when she seals the cracks with towels and allows the faucets to overflow, may find the whole thing waterlogged.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 119 Minutes Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)