The Shape of Water
Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Being nominated for multiple Academy Awards can be a curse. Expectations are raised beyond the film’s ability to deliver and, if successful, a director can be drawn towards worthiness. Personally, I hope The Shape of Water doesn’t triumph at the Oscars on March 4. Then its Mexican-born, Toronto-based co-writer-director Guillermo Del Toro can carry on making entertaining genre films without thinking he can cure the world of arrogant superiority, the real nemesis in his fantasy romance.
Sally Hawkins joins a long list of actresses, including Holly Hunter in The Piano, Samantha Morton in Sweet and Lowdown, Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda and Zoya Hussain in Mukkabaaz, to play mute. Her vocally-impaired Elisa is a cleaner working in a secure facility in Baltimore in 1962 which has a new ”asset”, a Mer-creature (Del Toro regular Doug Jones) clearly modelled on The Creature from the Black Lagoon, who has been transported from his habitat in South America and is having the will sapped out of him by a brutal G-man, Strickland (a scowling Michael Shannon,) who wants to turn him into America’s first astronaut. This idea is best treated as a MacGuffin: the creature isn’t remotely coached into being a spaceman, but just brutalised with an electric stick by Strickland who loses two of his fingers in an early scene.
Elisa bonds with the creature, offering him her boiled eggs and playing music to him. Her choices are fairly mainstream – why no Thelonious Monk? Eventually, she concocts a plan to liberate him, aided by her foster dad, Giles (Richard Jenkins), a repressed homosexual commercial artist with a fondness for cats (let’s stack the clichés, shall we?) and a scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg) working undercover at the facility.
There is a formal simplicity in the storytelling. Elisa’s best friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer, literally wiping the floor with her co-stars) speaks for two people, with her constant moans about her husband Brewster (Martin Roach) and Academy Award-nominated sassiness. Strickland is another of Del Toro’s doltish brutes, like Vidal (Sergi López) in Pan’s Labyrinth, fuelled by rage and impotence, who tries to compensate by buying a teal-coloured Cadillac. Del Toro deliberately pays homage to 1930s’ and 1940s’ Hollywood cinema that innocently but pointedly broke convention. In one scene, Elisa and Giles watch Shirley Temple dance with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (from the 1935 film, The Little Colonel), a “forbidden” duet that prefigures Elisa’s own dance with the Mer-creature in a black-and-white fantasy scene. Elisa sexually pleasures herself, making palatable her later communion with the creature.
Del Toro’s speciality is dramas that play out as one order is challenged by another. In this case, the Cuban Missile Crisis occurs in the background, though not interrupting Elisa’s routine of masturbation and eggs. His villains are driven by a sense of entitlement. Strickland reads “The Power of Positive Thinking” and attempts to transform himself into a winner, without ever examining his own ideas. Del Toro doesn’t do nuanced characterisation, but he and his co-writer Vanessa Taylor (Hope Springs) enjoy their archetypes: the saintly folk in The Shape of Water keep the drama moving without ever noticing that they are in a demented version of E.T.
Del Toro has been accused of stealing from other movies – notably Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie. Indeed, the set up – creating the world’s first amphibian spaceman – is the film’s only high concept and Del Toro isn’t interested in it at all. Instead, he delivers an easily digestible cocktail of romance and black comedy in a horror fantasy setting, where the “other” is always benevolent.
Nevertheless, I am reluctant to over-praise Sally Hawkins’ performance as a movie mute. Her work – she signs, emotes, floats and dances – is sterling enough. However, her character is such a trope that it shouldn’t be encouraged. I don’t want to see more films where the lead character is a metaphor rather than three dimensional and where disability is a signifier of “no ambition”.