BFI London Film Festival ’17 Review: ‘The Shape of Water’ is a conventional fairy-tale for adults

Guillermo Del Toro’s latest outing, ‘The Shape of Water’, has been a much-anticipated hit in various film circles, and has been described by many as his best since the career-defining ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’. Indeed, both films feature concepts that allow Del Toro to truly flex his aesthetic muscles, and the director has clearly been highly influenced once more by the darker realms of the fairy story. ‘The Shape of Water’ plays with many tropes of children’s fairy-tales, imbuing a well-trodden romantic plot with multiple new forays into the genre: a much more adult vision with regards to sex and violence, a mute female protagonist, wonderfully portrayed by Sally Hawkins, and the fact that the film’s love interest is…a fish. Indeed, much discussion around the film has revolved around this final element. Does Sally Hawkins actually have sex with the fish? How exactly does this work? Is this morally okay? Are we now attracted to fish people? Is social media going to start referring to the fish man as “Daddy”? Are we as a society prepared for this? Regardless of the answers to these questions, ‘The Shape of Water’ portrays a romance so sweet and odd that it’s difficult not to root for the gentle love between Eliza and her fish friend. However, in cultivating this romance, and the colourful, off-kilter world that the film takes place in, Del Toro neglects full development of virtually any other character.

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‘The Shape of Water’ follows the story of Eliza Esposito, a mute cleaner who spends her lonely life working for a laboratory, masturbating, and hanging out with her neighbour, Giles. When a mysterious shipment arrives at the lab, however, Eliza’s monotonous days are enlightened, as she befriends and eventually falls in love with the amphibious creature it contains. Both Eliza and the creature, as the film conspicuously points out, have many shared pains, from their inability to communicate traditionally, to their powerless positions within a society that refuses to listen to them, and as a result they quickly bond in their loneliness. It’s a sweet and poignant relationship that defies the weirdness of the initial concept to become a great love story.

Hence, the strength of ‘The Shape of Water’ is equally its biggest flaw; as a fairytale romance, the film struggles to develop a plethora of caricatured supporting characters. Plentiful tropes fall in line easily: clumsy gay sidekick, sassy black friend, sinister villain, unexpected ally. This creates a story that is as predictable as it is wondrous, and as a result, every beat of the film is as expected as it is satisfying. This is not to say that ‘The Shape of Water’ is not a brilliant feat. The film is thoroughly enjoyable, providing a little bit of everything; comedy, romance, thrills, fantasy – even horror in its gorier moments. The script is peppered with witty one-liners, and the supporting characters are lovable perhaps to a fault; for this lovable nature hints once more at the sole problem with the film: the manner in which the glossy shine coating every exchange leaves little room for any real depth.

Despite this, the film is consistently beautiful to look at, featuring a palette of cool shades over a landscape that varies from kitsch 50’s America to off-kilter steampunk vibes. This is Del Toro at his artistic best, as he creates a whole half-fantastical, half-realistic world in a two hour film, and envelopes the audience comfortably within this new realm through the sheer size and detail of the surroundings. Assisting his efforts is a perfect tour-de-force performance from the film’s leading actress; Sally Hawkins is truly a wonder to behold. It is perhaps obvious that a role with no spoken lines will allow an actor to truly stretch their abilities to full potential, but Hawkins takes a complex role and adds so much more. Her face encapsulates a full range of emotions that strike directly to the heart, as her character struggles through lifelong isolation, flourishes in unexpected love and battles against cruel authority. Throughout, Hawkins conveys so well that, despite her muteness, Eliza ends up being the character that speaks more than any other. The rest of the cast is also strong, featuring great performances from the likes of Michael Shannon and Richard Jenkins, but largely confined to the limits of their roles – Octavia Spencer in particular is wasted as little more than a comedic source.

Overall, ‘The Shape of Water’ is satisfying and enjoyable in its whimsy, but the inclusion of adult content cannot lift the film from the realm of typical fairy-tale fare – although, in the end, maybe that’s okay. As it is, the film makes solid, if limited, commentary on the nature of communication, diversity, love and overcoming boundaries, exploring these themes in an accessible and entertaining manner. With the political and social landscape in its current state, perhaps what we sometimes need is a feel-good, sentimental fairy-tale.

‘The Shape of Water’ will be released in the US on the 8th December 2017, and in the UK on the 16th February 2018. Let me know any thoughts you have on twitter at @muchadocinema or @angiebouchards, or comment below! 

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