Release: 25th June 2018
Format: BR / DVD / DGTL
From master storyteller, Guillermo del Toro, comes an other-worldly fairy tale, set against the backdrop of Cold War era America circa 1962. In the hidden government laboratory where she works, lonely Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is trapped in a life of silence and isolation. Elisa’s life is changed forever when she and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) discover a secret classified experiment.
How would Beauty and the Beast have played out if it were an allegory for segregation, instead of a gateway narrative to prepare young girls for the concept of arranged marriage? Well, for starters, it would need to speak to a wider audience marginalised by society. You couldn’t just make it about one particular demographic, because in the words of Donald Glover, “this is America”, where it seems life is difficult for anyone who does not fit within the model of the nuclear family. And, of course, it needs to include a fish man; this is Guillermo Del Toro after all.
Whatever you make of the man behind some of modern cinema’s more unique creature features, there is no denying that Del Toro has something to say about fringe society. And he loves to do so through the lens of fairytales. Whether he is exploring genocide victimhood via a menacing Faun, or dealing with post-feminist angst via a ghostly demon, you’ll always get a parable from this Mexican filmmaker.
The Shape of Water feels like the angriest and determined of all his works. It may have won Oscars and is truly a well-made, well acted and sometimes enjoyable feature, but the end result is that awe is substituted for ham-fisted smugness on the part of its director. Even the more whimsical moments seem self-satisfied; like someone posting an Instagram pic for the purposes of a humble brag. Oh, and for a film that wants to fight the corner of individualism, its characters are rather cliched.
A lot of hype was made about the core trio of Sally Hawkings, Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins. Yes, they are all wonderful actors, but let’s be brutally honest here, other than being overly sexualised, what sets Hawkings’ Elisa apart from every deaf character you’ve ever seen in cinema? She is repressed, lonely, cheeky; an underdog. Spencer, meanwhile, is a sassy black woman who speaks her mind and Jenkins is a closeted gay man who loves from afar and shows social awareness of other oppressed societies. Bravo for more representation in cinema, and let’s see it expand, but these are hardly ultra unique characteristics on display here. So enter the fish man with a winkle like a transformer. But even then, Doug Jones’ amphibious enigma is surely just a leftover design from Hellboy’s Abe Sapien? The dude even loves eating eggs!
In the event that the above is just terribly reductive, let’s be a little fairer. Yes, this is at least a refreshing take on a culturally relevant message. Yes, Del Toro’s design and craft is immaculate. And yes, you’re not likely to forget moments such as the bathroom flood in a hurry. But does any of this make The Shape of Water a tremendous film? I’d argue not. Instead i’d offer the opinion that this is a statement drowned by the weight of its own sense of originality. Its possibly the most self aware we have ever seen Del Toro, and it is not a coat he wears well. Compare it to a film such as previous Oscar champion, Moonlight, and you’ll see how big issues can be handled in a more affable and commanding way. Granted they are totally different genres, but the core message is similar; be yourself.
As moments such as the musical daydream drag the film deep in to the salty brine of tackiness, everyone aboard the film seems confident that substance means every single frame will automatically get a pass as meaningful. But the truth is, if it weren’t for Michael Shannon’s pantomime villain Strickland, there would be no tension or purpose to any of it. Instead we would have a glorified version of E.T where rather than just bathing the alien and feeding him Reese’s pieces, Eliot’s mum floods the bathroom and has sex with the wrinkly creature. Because, you know, it’s a metaphor, innit? About how love is blind, and all people are humans no matter what they look like, or sound like, or where they are from. Just like in that story….Beauty and the Beast.
Film Grade: C
A pretty informative Making Of and some Trailers make up the features on offer.
Special Features Grade: C-
Hardly the leap forward that many have labelled it, and a rather disengaging narrative that doubles down on sex and threat.