THE SHAPE OF WATER is nice, but weird. It’s very visually satisfying, and once you get passed the woman-sea monster romance, emotionally satisfying too.
The film takes its cues from classic, 1950s monster movies. These films were coloured by contemporary American fears about the Soviet Union, about ‘reds under the bed’ the nuclear arms race, and the racial tensions brought about by the civil rights movement. In films like The Creature of the Black Lagoon, humanoid monsters are implicitly – always implicitly – representative of African Americans, and historic fears of black men stealing white women.
But in The Shape of Water, the old format is subverted. The film takes the side of the ‘other’, represented not just by the sea monster – a lonely, imprisoned creature (the perpetually-hidden Doug Jones) – but also by the mute Eliza (Sally Hawkins), her African American friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and the closeted Giles (Richard Jenkins). They are, appropriately, pursued by a white, male enemy (Michael Shannon), representing the establishment authority.
It’s not particularly original – see Beauty and the Beast – but it is well done. Guillermo del Toro adds his idiosyncratic visual flair and fantasy aesthetic, and the performances are invariably excellent. There’s a particularly pleasant example of that Del Toro style in the opening moments, when, in a dream sequence, Sally Hawkins is shown floating above her bed in her eery, water-filled flat.
The film basically rests on convincing the audience of the central relationship’s sincerity, and in that respect it succeeds. In spite of the bestiality, you get a real sense of a romantic relationship that has developed naturally and realistically. Strangely enough, they’re a great couple. It helps that you’re watching a live-action woman fall in love with a live-action creature; this lends it a more tactile quality that a CGI monster would lack.
It would be cheap of me to accuse The Shape of Water of being nothing more than a modern take on Beauty of the Beast. True, it is fundamentally about a hideous ‘other’, despised and feared by those around him, who woos a beautiful woman is spite of his monstrous appearance and lives happily ever after. But that does it a disservice. The film does have something important to say about societal outcasts, and it does contain some rather lovely visuals, and some superb acting. But I won’t deny that, behind all this, there’s not a lot more to The Shape of Water than that basic fairy tale.
The sheer number of Oscar nominations might suggest that this film is one of the best. It’s undoubtedly very good, and I wouldn’t begrudge Guillermo del Toro a Best Director award to go with the one he already picked up at the BAFTAs. But I think that’s a bit too easy. Fundamentally, The Shape of Water doesn’t offer anything especially new, and shouldn’t really be compared to a competitor like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
While it shouldn’t win Best Picture, The Shape of Water remains a fine film: it’s very nice, very well-made, a bit weird, but rather shallow.