The Shape of Water won best film at the Academy Awards last night, prompting me to write a brief review. Was its Oscar glory deserved?
Given that it’s directed and by co-written Guillermo del Toro, it’s no surprise The Shape of Water (TSOW) is an unusual concoction quite unlike anything you’ve seen before - quite in that, at times, it also feels strangely familiar. My studio-exec elevator pitch would be Amelie meets The Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Sally Hawkins, fresh from her adventures with Paddington Bear, plays Elisa - a mute woman who lives alone and works as a cleaner at a top secret government laboratory during the Cold War. Her only friends are neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), a struggling illustrator, and fellow cleaner Zelda (Octavia Spencer).
Elisa’s mundane and repetitive existence is turned upside down when the laboratory takes delivery of a strange amphibious humanoid (Doug Jones) that’s been captured in a South American River. The sinister Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon, always excellent as the bad guy) has the creature chained inside a watertank and is hellbent on finding a way to exploit it as a weapon against the Soviets. Elisa starts to visit the creature in secret and the pair develop an unlikely relationship.
TSOW looks utterly stunning. The beautifully designed sets evoke memories of old movies like 20,000 leagues under the sea (The Nautilus is a clear inspiration) and the underwater scenes are sumptuously shot. It’s set in 60s USA, but the feel of the movie is otherworldly.
The creature, paying more than a slight nod to The Creature from the Black Lagoon, is also a work of art. Indeed, the film is very much a loving homage to 50s monster B movies. What del Toro does, though, is take the idea of a monster and beautiful woman forming a bond and then run with it all the way.
Elisa’s muteness means she has to communicate with the creature via sign language, a genius plot device that makes their highly unlikely relationship somehow plausible. This is a full-blown, physical relationship and that it doesn’t seem creepy or wrong is a commendable achievement pulled off by both Hawkins and del Toro. You just have to go with it.
There are definitely shades of Amelie in Elisa and, indeed, the overall quirky tone of the film is reminiscent of the work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The story of an alien creature being mistreated by scientists and wanting to escape home, oddly enough for a much more adult film, also evokes memories of ET.
For all its many virtues, TSOW surprisingly felt a little predictable at times, particularly its denouement. Much as I really liked it, I wanted to love it. For me, of those nominated, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri should have taken home the top prize.