LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: THE SHAPE OF WATER – the latest feature from Guillermo del Toro – screened at the Odeon Leicester Square (11 OCT). Here’s our writeup.
THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017, USA, 123min)
In our hunt for adventurous moving pictures there will always be surprises, disappointments and (way too many) mistakes. Guillermo del Toro’s THE SHAPE OF WATER may well turn out to be one or all of these.
Let’s put several things in place. Earlier films by del Toro such as MIMIC and THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE (particularly that one) feature highly if we are ever making lists. We have done the washing up with PACIFIC RIM screening in the background more than any recent blockbuster* and splashed out on Criterion Collection releases of his films. We also count the Gill-man as our favourite of the Universal monsters, preferring CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON to its more lauded peers.
THE SHAPE OF WATER should have been our favourite festival feast but wasn’t. Whether you like it or not hinges on whether you find it’s storytelling ‘familiar’ or ‘timeless’. For all its quirkiness (and we almost mean that pejoratively), THE SHAPE OF WATER is the kind of film that comes along in every director’s career that prompts reviewers to write the phrase ‘love letter to cinema’. From the picture palace setting to the creature feature themes, it is a full fat remix of many movies we have enjoyed before.
The story, as is the way with such things, is simple. Set in the Cold War, two cleaners at a government research facility encounter the cruel treatment of an amphibious research subject (Doug Jones) by beyond zealous head of security Strickland (Michael Shannon). As a romantic bond develops between Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and the creature, she elicits the help of fellow cleaner Zelda (Octavia Spencer), her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) and shady scientist Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) to set him free.
Hawkins is terrific as the mute Elisa, her fierce-fingered presence opening up the film’s emotional landscape considerably. Her passionate plea to save the creature sets the film’s entire moral compass. She also brings an expert lightness of touch to the film’s gentler moments (and yes, we do mean those scenes in the bathtub…). As supporting stars, Spencer and Jenkins prove equally impressive, rooting the fantasy with warmth and humour. Giles’ pursuit of pie-shaped wish fulfilment is both surprising and touching as are the limitations that haunt both of these characters’ lives.
The only performer who seems a little lost at sea is Doug Jones, drowning under his usual pounds of latex. It’s (almost) a creature design we have seen del Toro/Jones deliver before and the film never quite finds the unique tick or trait to animate the artistry of the suit. We get strength and vulnerability but what Amphibian Man seems to be lacking is character. The ensuing romance – rather like Peter Jackson’s KING KONG – becomes plot rather than character driven as if we can’t quite get our fins on what she’s so hot about.
As an exercise in dark whimsy THE SHAPE OF WATER is very much something old, new, borrowed and blue. Its tone draws heavily from Jean-Pierre Jeunet, leaping from fantasy romance to gross-out humour and stomach-churning violence with considerable dexterity. And then there’s how darn beautiful it looks. Seemingly enabled by an industrious team of interior decorators from the HELLBOY universe, every frame delivers sweet kisses to the eyeballs. From the drowned world prologue to the swoonsome punchline, THE SHAPE OF WATER overflows with stunning images. However, only come the dramatic end-of-the-pier show does it attain a dramatic urgency that hints at more powerful undercurrents.
Our eternal hunt for adventurous moving pictures is fuelled, in part, by an appetite for distinctive stories told in distinctive ways. THE SHAPE OF WATER is a glorious exercise in filmmaking but it falls short on both of those counts. It took a return to del Toro’s home continent less than 24hrs later for that appetite to be sated…
HUNGRY FOR MORE?
- Find THE SHAPE OF WATER on IMDb.
- THE SHAPE OF WATER will be released in the UK on 16 FEB 2018.
- Guillermo del Toro’s film screened as one of the sponsors’ galas at the 61st BFI London Film Festival 2017. Don’t miss your last chance to buy tickets this weekend!
- Don’t just take our blogging word for it: DOG AND WOLF loved it as did BROKEN SHARK. MUCH ADO ABOUT CINEMA shared some of our ambivalence.
Featured images: THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017).
*It might be the kaiju, it might be Charlie Hunnam, we can’t make up our minds…