My love for Guillermo del Toro is a matter of public record. I am an ardent fan of Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins and Michael Shannon, and agree with the New York Times that Michael Stuhlbarg is criminally underrated. Yet, The shape of water, directed by Del Toro and starring all of the great actors above, was utterly pedestrian and mildly creepy. A strange combination, I know.
What makes the film so dull is the one-dimensional story and the stereotypical characters. A mute cleaner falls in love with a “mute” river monster. He doesn’t see she is “incomplete”. She sets him free. That’s it. It cannot quite compare to the layered Pan’s labyrinth, which includes two realms, the Spanish Civil War, a young girl believed to be a mythical princess who needs to complete a series of hair-raising trials, a housekeeper-spy, Pan himself and that gurgling “root baby” underneath the bed … (I am not mentioning the long-fingered man with the eyes in the palms of his hands. I’ve blocked it out. Okay, I have not.)
Elisa’s sidekicks are a jabbering African American woman and a lonely, ageing gay man. The villain is a middle-class white male. We’ve seen them all. There is no backstory, very little complexity and zero growth for all involved. Zelda jabbers on. Giles frets about his toupee. Strickland stalks everything with his cattle prod. For goodness’ sake, in Hellboy II you were rooting for the villain, Prince Nuada! He was, after all, paying the humans back for destroying the earth.
The gaping plot holes drove me insane. If the monster is locked up and monitored 24/7, how can Elisa feed him eggs and play him music day after day without being detected, and then simply cart him out from under their noses? Turning away one camera will not do the trick.
If he was caught in an Amazon river, why does he need to be submerged in salt water?
Why does she need to wait for the water to rise above the levee to set him free, if he can breathe outside of the water? Surely, she can drive him to any other river? Oh, wait, he needed to be stranded in her flat for them to have sex.
Which brings me to the creepy element of the film, an element I cannot quite explain. Was it the fervent masturbation? The interspecies sex? Elisa’s quite obsessive behaviour? The awkwardness Sally Hawkins brings to all her performances? Perhaps, it was a combination of it all.
The shape of water is beautifully styled and filmed and the actors give it their all, but the lack of substance and a stock-standard script lets the whole production down.