Ieuan Jones reviews The Shape of Water, screening in the Plymouth Arts Centre cinema from 23 March – 5 April. Tickets are available to book now, and we anticipate some screenings will sell out so be sure to book early.
So, the golden statuettes have all been handed out, the corks have all been popped and it’s the morning after the night before. Since the venerable Academy have decided that Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is the year’s best film, are we to make the same of it?
Well, it certainly was an interesting choice. It has many of the hallmarks of a del Toro fable. It is both grounded in a real world – in this case Cold War Baltimore – and also adrift a world of fantasy. This particular one looks like it’s ripped straight from a vintage copy of the classic comic ‘Amazing Stories.’ You can even imagine a tagline like “Forbidden Love of the Sea!” set on the cover, among the other splashes of space aliens and giant bugs. (The next-door neighbour here, Giles (Richard Jenkins), who is an illustrator pimping his art, feels like a conscious nod to this idea.) And The Shape of Water really is comic book to its core – from its bold primary colours, all sea greens and raspberry reds – to its plot, which juxtaposes real monsters who feel with human monsters who don’t.
Del Toro has form with comics (sorry, graphic novels) of course – he directed the Marvel adaptation Blade II (2002) and was behind the two Hellboy films (originally Dark Horse comics) made to date. But The Shape of Water feels immediately different to these, perhaps closer to the dark imagination of his Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, a mute cleaner of a government facility, where the incredible discovery of a merman is wheeled in inside a tank. Elisa’s intrigue is piqued and she sneaks in to steal glances of the mysterious fish man, then leaves out some food for him, and then … well, you don’t need me to tell you what happens next. Suffice it to say that before long the danger becomes all too real, from the military, in the form of Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon, at his most Michael Shannon) and those they are pitted against, namely the Russians. The misfits become pawns in the game of the power hungry, including the humble scientists such as Dr Hoffstetler, played by Michael Stuhlbarg (who by law must be in every Hollywood film going right now).
The Shape of Water’s broadness sometimes gets the better of it. Elisa’s friend at the facility, Yolanda (Allegra Fulton) felt a little too close to type and without any shade. And one scene in particular, where Giles is made to feel most unwelcome at his favourite lunch spot, was pretty on the nose – making explicit what had been made abundantly clear elsewhere. But when it hits, it really does – right down to a musical number sprung from nowhere and right out of golden age song and dance routine. Maybe it was the perfect choice for an old Hollywood backslap after all!