“The Shape of Water” is a dark romantic fantasy directed by Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”), who knows a thing or two about shaping a dark fantasy. But what does he know about romance? Judging from this movie, not much.
Elisa Espinosa (Sally Hawkins) grew up an orphan. She has no knowledge of her past, her parents, or why there are three slashes near her throat that have left her mute. She lives a solitary life but has two close friends: her next-door neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), an aging, lonely artist, and her chatty co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). It’s 1962, and Elisa and Zelda work as janitors in a high-security research facility in Baltimore. One day, a holding tank filled with water is wheeled into the facility by Colonel Richard Strickland (a typically menacing Michael Shannon), back from an excursion to South America. Inside the tube? A humanoid amphibian (Doug Jones). Strickland, believing him an abomination, tortures him while the scientists study the creature. But Elisa is drawn to him and forges an immediate connection using sign language to communicate. Soon, an improbable relationship develops, and Eliza embarks on an adventure to save the creature and a chance at true love.
“The Shape of Water” has fantastic production design. With strong primary colors, a healthy dose of neon, and a rain-slicked sheen (water obviously is a theme), the movie brings the 1960s to life, though probably not in the way that it actually looked, but in a way we would imagine it to have been. It’s like a comic book version of the era crossed vaguely with the aesthetics of “Dark City.” The movie certainly is eye candy.
But that production design is undercut by the film’s cinematography. The movie is an ode to classic Hollywood cinema with the main characters talking about movies, watching them on television together, and referencing them (at one point, Elisa and Giles perform a seated dance number to mimic the film they’re watching). Their apartment even rests on top of a movie theater. Sadly, though, “Water” is filmed with digital cameras, and if any movie would have benefitted from the tactile feel of 35mm film, its ability for a glossy sheen, it would have been this one. Instead, it looks too crisp, too harsh with its digital polish. I shouldn’t be able to see the pores on the characters’ faces when in close up. The cinematography goes against the grain of what the movie is celebrating.
But there are bigger issues. The romance, the center of the movie, doesn’t draw you in. This is tricky material, the relationship between a woman and a non-human creature. The movie’s clearly in the vain of “Beauty and the Beast,” albeit with more gore and a direct sexual dynamic between the lovers. But we just don’t buy their relationship. The scenes of courtship are too few and too rushed. Elisa plays records for the amphibian, brings him food, and teaches him a little sign language. They have limited contact, but before long, she’s declaring her love and guilting her friends into risking their lives to help break him out.
Exacerbating this problem is that Guillermo del Toro (who also co-wrote the film with Vanessa Taylor) is too coy about what the creature is supposed to be. He’s a romantic figure, with loving shots of his glistening torso erupting from the murky waters, but then he’s clearly delineated as a wild animal, with the movie going so far as to show him chomping on a half-eaten cat. And in the middle of these two extremes, the amphibian man is there without a personality. He’s too passive toward Elisa, at least until the end, and by that time it’s too little too late. Del Toro wants him (and yes, the movie makes clear that he is a he) to be a blank canvas that the characters project their emotions onto. They see what they want to see in him. This is interesting, but it undercuts the romance at the heart of the film.
But “Water” does have a bright spot in Sally Hawkins. She’s beguiling. So full of life, of passion, she’s completely captivating, expressive without saying a word. And even though we don’t buy Elisa’s relationship with the creature, Hawkins completely convinces us that her character, at least, is in love.
Visually, “The Shape of Water” is an impressive production. The prosthetics and various special effects that bring the amphibian man to life are intricate and fantastic. Apparently, Guillermo del Toro took seven years to perfect the amphibian suit, and it shows. Unfortunately, that same attention to detail doesn’t come through in the script.