A terrified woman searches the nearby area of her apartment for the seven-foot saltwater creature she has rescued from the clutches of evil. Entering the cinema situated under her home, she finds him; gazing up in amazement at the wonders of the silver screen. This image beautifully captures the power of the moving image, however, director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak) ultimately fails in ensuring audiences themselves are transfixed by the screen displaying his latest effort.
In this fairytale set in the 1950s, Sally Hawkins stars as Elisa Esposito, a mute working as a cleaner at a top secret research facility. She spends her days listening to the humorous rants of fellow co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and cleaning as instructed. Her routine occupation is disrupted when the facility acquires a new asset; a mysterious and fascinating river-creature discovered in South America. Their first encounter suggests a deep-rooted connection, and they begin to acquaint themselves over a series of brief but touching scenes. Sadly, he is in terrible danger, and upon witnessing the abuse her new friend has succumbed to, Elisa plans to free him from this prison, of which she herself feels shackled to. Standing in the way of their affections however, is the caricatured Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon), the man responsible for discovering the creature, who remains dead-set on cruelly continuing to deliver its suffering. It’s a whimsical tale of love, evil and the coexistence of the two, set against a bleak fantasy-scape of impeccable design.
Firstly, it must be addressed how one can succeed and fail within the same project. The narrative falls on two major complications; the first is how Elisa will be able to secure the safety of her aquatic lover, and secondly, how Strickland will be able to destroy the creature and recover the ashes of his threatened career. Strickland is insufferable, and Shannon has always excelled when portraying such characters, yet, it is easy to decide where the films heart stems from, and that is the relationship between human and creature. The director wishes to blur the line between these two distinctions, and simply wishes audiences to identify two beings who find comfort in the existence of the other – this is a wonderful concept. Neither of them can vocalise their love, it is born of an unspoken understanding. The images provided to illustrate this are gorgeously lavish, but sadly there simply isn’t enough time spent with the couple to care as much as we wish to. The narrative, particularly in the last act, feels much more concerned with Strickland’s quest, and of course this is crucial, but it feels that much more time is spent with him instead of developing the romance that never reaches its full potential.
What del Toro manages, is to incorporate a series of truly beautiful, captivating moments into a narrative preoccupied with its weakest links; Strickland’s antagonist is too cartoonish to care about and beyond redemption, and while his persistence creates tension, the film doesn’t need it in such abundance – more intimacy is what it truly needs to shape a narrative aiming for poignancy. Such aforementioned captivating moments are visualised through personal influence of starry-eyed nostalgia, and del Toro successfully reminisces over the magic of the golden age of Hollywood with fondness and romanticism; there is even a song and dance number which is destined to be adored for years to come. Scenes such as this are made so special thanks to the director’s most present influence; B-Horror movies, with the obvious influence of Hammer films, and particularly Jack Arnold’s 1954 creature-feature, The Creature from the Black Lagoon. It subverts expectations splicing the two of these major influences into a tale that is distinctly auteurist of del Toro. His faith in genre hybridity provides such lovingly displayed imagery, and the devotion to creating such authentic and intricate set-pieces convey an artist at the helm with a distinct vision. The vision is not the issue however, it’s the diversions away from this that the plot takes which steal the film from its rightful focus.
Guillermo del Toro has given audiences such masterpieces as Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, but contrary to the belief of many, his latest work feels, unmistakably, a missed opportunity to reacquaint with greatness a decade after making what is often considered the greatest fantasy film ever made. Sally Hawkins is superb, and along with the Academy Award for Best Picture, this latest outing for the Mexican-born filmmaker is also likely to secure the Best Actress category. There are beautiful moments amidst the mediocre, and unfortunately, The Shape of Water could have been so much more, for it is a romance that becomes concerned with sub-plot, and suggests a shame and deviation away from its subversive, potentially swooning romance.