Review Roundup - It Came From...

THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017)

As I probably talked about during my review of Crimson Peak, Guillermo del Toro is at his best when the Hollywood blockbuster action is dialled back and the weird and horrifying elements are given room to breathe. His finest Spanish language efforts are a mixture of the Gothic and the cruel, while maintaining a certain amount of fairytale fantasy. So where does this latest release fall in terms of cinema magic? It certainly won a few prestigious awards and it appears to have all the baroque visuals that mark the touch of a passionate artist in his element. But this is more than just a merman romance and there are a lot of intricately crafted pieces to explore in this story of monsters, misfits and Russian spies.


There are a lot of elements to consider in a tale of mute cleaning lady Elisa (Sally Hawkins) who's daily routine involves mopping laboratory floors with her colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and looking after her artistic neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins). The latter is a painter once employed in advertising, but was ousted due to his personal life being frowned on and his art being replaced by photography. There's a lot of underdog ideas and a few choice allusions to contemporary life through the lens of the 1950s. It's a fairy tale for the modern age as they say, but references to the life of James Whale and Del Toro's experience working with Drew Struzan are notable. There's a lot going on.

This mixture of different ideas is often more noticeable when there's a shift in tone required, and not all of the transitions are smooth. On the one hand this is a whimsical fantasy, and there are some clear nods to films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet from the green colour palette to the visuals right out of Delicatessen. There are a lot of goofy character moments and there's a lot of accordion music. As the title suggests there's a lot of water. However on the other hand it also offers a lot of horror and serious drama. As a monster movie it's bloody and dark, and as a story about people it includes a good helping of real intolerance and wilful ignorance.

How you feel about these different worlds colliding will probably determine your enjoyment levels. Make no mistake this is a film with plenty of sex and violence, and all those cute moments when things are at their most twee are overshadowed by the bigger ideas in play. The decade being presented is an over-stylised backdrop to both serious issues and farcical black comedy. It asks questions about what it means to be decent and humane while throwing in gags involving pet cats and dents in brand new Cadillacs. It often feels like a kitchen sink approach was used and that Del Toro loves all of this stuff too much to be ruthless in the cutting room.


However it does have to be said that a lot of it is consistently enjoyable despite this uneven end result. Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) in particular shines as the true monster of the story, a government agent who's sense of righteousness and Christian goodness is shown through words instead of actions. His evil core is often cartoonishly exaggerated, particularly in scenes where he begins to become fascinated with the mute Elisa - his perfect woman. But you have to enjoy his scenery chewing, particularly his rant about eating candy while he tortures a wounded man. He's a grotesque figure and a theatrical villain symbolic of American values at their most twisted. It's good stuff.

The central romance on the other hand feels underwhelming and somewhat rushed as Elisa meets the Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) and rapidly takes an interest. Once a revered as a god in South America he's now a prisoner in a high security facility... where any staff member can wander in a take a look while scientists loudly discuss their most valuable top secret asset. The creature design looks great and has a lot of wonderful details, even if it's far too similar to Doug Jones as Abe Sapien whether it's because of his facial structure or just Del Toro's preference for scales and fins. It moves a little to quickly so that other aspects of the story and his rescue can come together.

That isn't to say Sally Hawkins isn't great as the hero, and she does a lot to bring screen presence to the character without saying a word. The real show stopper is a fantasy sequence in which all her cinema style dreams are realised just for a moment, and her interest in musicals and the theatre below her apartment pays off dramatically. It's a genuinely magic moment that suggests things would have worked better if they'd pushed for more outrageous set pieces and gone the extra mile into period spectacle. But as it stands the central thrust of the story just feels a bit underdeveloped.

Overall this is a weird, disgusting and often playful journey into the past that raises current issues while offering some great performances and a few grisly images. Michael Shannon's severed fingers and a laboratory spy's punctured cheek will be moments that are just as indelible as the undersea kisses and the tap dancing. It's hard to be critical as it's all done with such gleeful creativity, and everything is so beautifully framed whether it's pulling the heart strings or churning the stomach. But I'd have liked a bit more focus to give the story a stronger foundation. It'll make you smile, and it'll make you grimace, sometimes in the same sequence. But in the end love is a reaction that I just don't feel in this case.

3/5