The Shape of Water is Guillermo Del Toro‘s modern re-interpretation of the classic La Belle et la Bete: a tale in which an outcast young woman falls in love with a creature which is viewed as savage and inhuman by outsiders. It is a film which uses artistry and visual beauty to tell this classic story. Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, the film’s spiritual “Belle”, in a spectacularly quiet Oscar-nominated performance.
The production value of The Shape of Water is top notch. The design of the creature is just human enough to evoke empathy from the audience, while remaining alienating enough to keep the film’s romance feeling daring and even experimental. The use of water throughout creates an otherworldly atmosphere and a sense of magic. A song-and-dance number toward the film’s conclusion was a spectacular and unconventional moment that crossed genre lines in a fluid way.
Elisa is a mute janitor at a secret government research facility, which is the setup for her interaction with her unusual romantic counterpart. The fact that she is mute leaves her somewhat separate from the rest of the cast, positioning her as the film’s most empathetic character and one who has a unique view of the world, having spent much of her life as an outcast. Her friendships, few and far between, are touching and intimate as the viewer senses that she has spent much of her life in isolation.
Hawkins’ performance is complemented by the performance of Richard Jenkins as her friend and neighbor Giles. Giles assists with the kidnapping of the creature and the experience proves to be cathartic in the midst of his own personal crisis. As an older gay man in the 50’s, Giles, like Elisa, is essentially an outcast in society. He is rejected in his career and his romantic life, and by all measures Elisa is the one person who truly understands or appreciates him. Giles and Elisa work well as a pair of lost souls who don’t quite fit in in the world they occupy, and the friendship feels genuine and touching.
Given these strong elements, it is all the more surprising that The Shape of Water feels astonishingly conventional. While the synopsis sounds a bit odd, every turn of the plot feels entirely predictable. Outside of Elisa and Giles, the characters are, frankly, uninteresting. Michael Shannon’s performance as the antagonist Richard Strickland is thoroughly one dimensional. His nefarious motives are entirely unearned, and while minor motivating factors are presented, the audience is largely just left to accept that he is an utter sociopath. Octavia Spencer’s Zelda, Elisa’s work friend, exists in the movie only to project Spencer’s own enthusiastic on-screen personality. A less interesting actor would’ve relegated this character to being entirely pointless. Even the amphibian man (Doug Jones) himself is an unexpectedly boring character. He finds companionship in Elisa’s acceptance of him, but the viewer walks away from the film with absolutely no deeper understanding of him as a being who feels emotions. In a sense, Del Toro violates his own premise in painting the creature as an inhuman monster who is merely a mirror for Elisa’s own emotions and alienation.
The Shape of Water is a quality piece of entertainment, and certainly a well directed one. It takes some risks, particularly in portraying the physical relationship between Elisa and the creature. However, its script reveals a profound lack of creativity that simply can’t go unstated. The thrust of the film is based in tired ideas and recycled story elements that fail to match the fresh tone that it strives for. Del Toro flashes his credentials as a cinephile, calling on a number of interesting homages to classic cinema, but he himself fails to bring anything especially fresh to the table unlike in his previous films. The Shape of Water succeeds in being an enjoyable two hours of your day, but it is far from being the most interesting work of one of cinema’s most unique artists.