Sitges 2017 Review: The Shape of Water is a beautiful romance film that never reaches its full potential

Guillermo del Toro has made maybe his most personal and passionate film, which suffers by being way too familiar.

Del Toro has to be one of the greatest creative minds of our time. His imagination knows no boundaries, and his films reflect that. From the quiet, somber gothic horror of the Spanish Civil War shown in The Devil’s Backbone, to the CGI-heavy bliss of entertainment that was Pacific Rim, to the wildly misunderstood and colorful gothic romance Crimson Peak; you know that with del Toro you’ll at least get a very imaginative and original film.

Unfortunately, while beautiful in visuals and mythology, The Shape of Water is far from del Toro’s best or most original film.

Described by the auteur as a fairy tale for adults, we follow a mute girl named Eliza – played masterfully by Sally Hawkins, who works cleaning the floors of a secret military base with Zelda (Octavia Spencer). One day scientist Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) and fantastically eerie military man Strickland (Michael Shannon) bring in a Creature From the Black Lagoon-looking being only referred to as “The Asset”. The creature doesn’t speak, so of course Eliza falls for him for some reason. Oh, and it’s the 60s so there’s oppression everywhere, from a gay neighbor to a black co-worker, to just the prejudices of being mute.

This is a film about being different, made for those who feel different. With The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro has crafted a love story that is more about his love for stories and cinema than a story about people (or beings) in love. The script by him and Vanessa Taylor wants us to believe in the love between Eliza and The Asset.

Any film with Michael Shannon in it is a film worth seeing.

While the actors are great – Doug Jones pretty much reprises his role as Abe from Hellboy, but shows even more heart and emotion, and Sally Hawkins displays more emotion than most actors without uttering a single word – the only thing that brings the two characters together is their inability to speak. It is cute, and they are great on scene, but you never fully buy into a relationship which drives the entire film.

You may not feel anything about Eliza and faux-Abe, but you will marvel at the look and feel of The Shape of Water.

Production designer Paul D. Austerberry, director of photography Dan Laustsen (also from Crimson Peak) and art director Nigel Churcher make the world of the film come to life and feel like a real, inhabited place. Like Hellboy, or Crimson Peak before it, The Shape of Water will lure you into its world of long, creepy hallways and scary laboratories you could swear exist somewhere out there.

Each of the mentioned artists could easily wind up with an Oscar nomination. Every bathroom tile, every crack on the wall feels absolutely necessary to the story. At the same time, Alexandre Desplat gives us in The Shape of Water the best score for a fantasy film since Javier Navarrete’s lullabies from Pan’s Labyrinth.

The Asset may be similar to Abe, but Doug Jones is still a master at playing monsters with little to say.

What does transcend the film, and manages to engage you despite the numerous flaws with the script and a story we’ve seen a thousand times before, is del Toro’s passion for the project. With homages to everything from the obvious Creature from the Black Lagoon, to an exquisite musical number to rival La La Land. This is del Toro saying “I love fairy tales. I love to tell stories. I love cinema”.

This is a turning point for the Mexican director, perhaps a return to smaller, more personal films. They may not always work, but they present a vision of the world too beautiful to ignore.

Grade: Matinée

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