Oscar Season: The Shape of Water

I have to be honest here: I don’t love a single Guillermo Del Toro movie. I respect his work immensely and have never sat through any of his films bored (well, maybe except for Cronos, but cut me some slack with that one), but there’s something about his films, passionate love letters to their respective genres and often trenchant political commentaries to boot, that has never quite connected with me. But I’ve always wanted to love his work, so when I saw The Shape of Water, following the story of a mute cleaner for a shady government facility who forms an intense bond with a mysterious fish-monster brought in for study, was recieving such high praise, I felt like I’d at last found the movie for me. But, much to my irritation at myself, I found myself dissapointed once more.

Because look, I don’t think The Shape of Water is a bad movie. Like so many of the films I feel this way about, it’s not that I came out of Del Toro’s latest flick snorting and shaking my head in disgust. No, in a lot of ways, Shape of Water is a magnificent film – it’s certainly his most visually impressive (and that is no mean feat with lovingly-rendered fantasy and horror worlds like those found in Pan’s Labyrinth and Crimson Peak in his oeuvre), and revels in the American iconography of 1962 Baltimore that forms the backdrop for the story: the Cadillac, the cinema, the looming government facility. The watery opening and closing sequences are quite dazzlingly beautiful, the kind of lush, lavish visuals that force you to sit up and take notice. Michael Shannon shines as Colonel Richard Strickland, the flawless American rotting in pieces (both literally and metaphorically), and Sally Hawkins puts forward a good case for her Oscar win, and that’s against the best performance of Frances McDoramand’s career so go figure. An impossibly endearing Richard Jenkins nearly steals the movie out from underneath everyone, while Octavia Spencer, Michael Stulhbarg, and Nick Searcy fill out the world with the confidence of character actors deep into their careers.

And the love story, too, is a bold take on the romance genre, interweaving cinematic touchstones and fantasy elements with ease to create something hauntingly beautiful; the sexuality is front and centre without feeling gratuitous, and the notions of communication and humanity are well-realized enough, if a little on-the-nose at points. As a romance writer myself and someone who’s ghostwritten all kinds (all kinds) of fantasy romance stories in the past, most of the more weird on paper than this, I have to hold my hands up and offer some respect to Del Toro for finding the tenderness at the heart of what is a naturally sensationalist story (the internet, predictably, has already come up with a matching fish dildo so you can masturbate accurately along with Shape of Water).

But there’s just something here that doesn’t click with me. This movie runs to a good couple of hours, but it also felt noticeably overstuffed – the inclusion of the Stulhbarg-centric Russian spy plot felt extraneous, while the first act of the story (arguably, when it comes to establishing a romantic connection, the most important) was rushed through in a way that leaves the movie feeling top-heavy and a little disjointed. In fact (and I really don’t say this often, as I find most of the movies I sit down to watch in the cinema are way overlong, often thanks to their connection to wider cinematic universes), I really think this would have worked as a miniseries, allowing more space for the on-paper interesting subplots with such talented character actors some space to breath, as opposed to leaving them feeling like they were pulling focus from what should have been the central story. The actors aren’t a let-down here, but the stories feel a little too rushed. For a cast that’s an embarrassment of riches, Del Toro doesn’t spend them as well as I would have hoped.

Like all of Del Toro’s movies, I really respect the story that The Shape of Water is trying to tell, and I love the way in which Del Toro has told it when it comes to style and cast. But many of the characters feel oddly inessential when what they represent for the world and these themes (of oppression, communication, and isolation) could be so intriguing with just a little more space and time to breath, while the story fails to really sell it’s crucial central romance. The Shape of Water is a brilliant film – but still not one that I liked very much.

If you enjoyed this post and want to see more stuff like it, please consider checking out the rest of our Oscar Season series, where we’re reviewing all the Best Picture nominees, and consider supporting us on Patreon!

(header image courtesy of Vox)

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