Best Production Design
FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES (2018)
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer
“There is no profit in last week’s fish.”
Guillermo del Toro is back with aquatic-dark fantasy-drama-romance-Cold War spy story (...and breathe) The Shape of Water. After the relatively disappointing Crimson Peak and Pacific Rim, del Toro ramps up the fantasy levels into something more mature than his previous works. Having his story set in 1962 Baltimore, with the Cold War silently raging, allows del Toro to go big with his modern-day messages and allegories but prevalent in it all is the love between a mute woman and a fish man.
Rendered mute by a childhood neck injury, Elisa Esposito (Hawkins) has always felt like an outsider, someone that people don’t understand or believe is incomplete. Her only confidantes are neighbour Giles (Jenkins), a closeted gay man and struggling artist, and Zelda (Spencer), her African-American colleague at the covert government facility in which they work as cleaners. When a confidential “asset” is brought to the facility by Colonel Richard Strickland (Shannon), Elisa’s curiosity reveals it to be a humanoid amphibian, AKA Amphibian Man (Jones) – a strange creature captured from a South American river and one the USA wants to experiment on in order to gain an advantage in the ongoing ‘space race’ with the Soviets.
Elisa’s increasing interest in the creature leads to her sneaking into the restricted zone where he is kept and sharing food, music and sign communication with Amphibian Man, developing a close bond based on their appreciation of each other and what they have, rather than what they lack. With pressure mounting to terminate Amphibian Man – from the US and the Soviets, both for differing reasons – Elisa decides her only chance of retaining her attachment is to help Amphibian Man escape and set him free (with the help of Soviet sympathiser Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Stuhlbarg)) – but love is never easy to relinquish.
With messages of love, understanding, acceptance, trust and inclusivity, The Shape of Water certainly has a lot to say. That each of these messages also relate directly to the main romance is vital to buying the idea of a human female and a hideous fish man falling in love together. He’s a stranger, an outsider, a...fish man and she’s mute, forced to feel like she’s somehow different – but together, the bond the two share is above all of that, it’s not based on pre-accepted notions or sympathy. It’s a nice message del Toro aims for, and it’s success hinges on whether you can get past the fact that the male in the couple is a slinky trout dude. For me, it didn’t work completely – coupled with the fact that the romance is rushed and based more on lust due to the writing, it felt flat.
The Shape of Water, as you’d expect, is dripping (no pun...) with del Toro’s signature visuals and stylistic flair. There’s an unmistakable blue/aqua sheen decorating every frame, with all-blue balloons, tiles, post its etc. floating in the background akin to bubbles permeating the screen. The charming 1960s aesthetics allow for a warm, vintage atmosphere during the movie, though at times the movie had an overwhelming '90s music video vibe to it – I fully expected Billie Myers to show up, still full of angst. The general visuals flit between this and its natural '60s setting. There’s a vintage-Hollywood dream-dance number that occurs later in the movie that seems highly forced in, regardless of its attempt at an emotional high, and its brevity makes it more at-odds with the movie. However, it’s an undeniably beautiful looking movie, and the underwater scenes are gorgeously framed and presented. Doug Jones makeup and prosthetics are excellent, as are his attempts to bring humanity and character to the role.
Aiding the movie is Alexandre Desplat’s marvellous score. Vintage, trippy and exquisite, the music partners the strangeness on screen nicely.
The cast all perform ably, also. Sally Hawkins is extremely good in a challenging role, and her warmth and likability anchors the movie and is by far the highlight. Jenkins, Stuhlbarg and Spencer are great in their supporting roles – though their development leaves a lot to be desired. Michael Shannon shows up and just screams “I’M THE BAD GUY” – unfortunately, the one-note overly-evil act fails to shine. It was obvious he’s the bad dude as soon as he enters the movie, but del Toro has him physically deteriorate (like a monster...) just to ensure we all get the point. Still love ya though, Mike.
The movie falls flat around half way through. The espionage angle and friendship between Elisa (and Giles) and Zelda are intriguing and entertaining, however once the unearned romance begins and the heist takes place, the narrative tumbles into standard hide-and-seek territory before a final showdown and any originality drains away into action and loopiness. The visual winks and nods throughout become even more apparent which is a shame as the viewer could surely connect the dots themselves, hint: see final scene revelation.
Also, I wouldn’t fancy using the bathroom, shall we say, with a giant Mahi Mahi watching me.
The Shape of Water looks incredible and sounds incredible, but sadly, falls short of being incredible. All the sensory ambition and commentary can’t cover for a thin story that’s rushed, therefore losing the vast majority of its emotional weight. With some great moments throughout, there’s plenty of patchiness and bizarreness that doesn’t hit. Great performances are underdeveloped (Hawkins aside) and ultimately leave The Shape of Water floundering in the deep.
January 9th 2018