17 Feb 2018 – 9:24

Review: 'The Shape of Water': An astutely mounted fairy tale

A still from the movie The Shape of Water.

By Troy Ribeiro / IANS

Film: “The Shape of Water” | Director: Guillermo del Toro | Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer, Nick Searcy, David Hewlett, Lauren Lee Smith, Martin Roach, Allegra Fulton, John Kapelos and Morgan Kelly | Rating: ***1/2

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Director Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” is a beautiful, yet strange tale of romance that would remind you of films like “Beauty and the Beast”, “Shrek” or even “Splash”, but unlike these films, this one is a patronisingly laboured fairy tale.

The story set in the Cold War era of early 1960s, is told in a straightforward manner, like that of a fairy tale.

The film begins with visuals of an apartment immersed in water with the furniture and all things floating. A voiceover that accompanies the visuals begins the narrative with, “If I spoke about it, if I did, what would I tell you? I wonder… I don’t know what I’ll tell you about her, the princess without a voice or perhaps I’ll just warn you about the truth about these facts and the tale of love and lost and the monster who tried to destroy it all.”

This unsure demeanour sets the tone of the film revealing the lonely routine of Elisa Esposito a hearing unimpaired but mute girl who works as a janitor at a research centre.

One day while cleaning the lab, she stumbles upon a humanoid creature known as “The Asset” who is brought there for experimentation. We are told this creature, the Amphibian Man was found in the Amazon marshes and is worshipped by the indigenous people of Amazon as “God”.

How she forges a close bond with him and plans his escape, forms the crux of the tale.

While the film is astutely mounted and presented wonderfully with lavish production designs by Paul Denham Austerberry, it’s the plot and characterisation that seems forced. This is quite evident when Elisa discovers the creature in his tank. She is literally unfazed and immediately accepts his existence, establishes a line of communication and befriends him.

Similarly, though the supernatural and fantastical are met with a casual acceptance as they would in any fairy tale, the film abounds with a sense of expertly curated magic realism even though there is not anything explicitly magical. This makes it difficult for you to invest in the film emotionally.

But what keeps you hooked to the screen are the remarkable performances, especially that of Sally Hawkins. As Elisa, she emotes with tender emotional transparency and seems flawless like an overgrown child, because she cannot speak, she communicates with sign language and uses broad gestures and facial expressions.

She is aptly supported by; Richard Jenkins as Giles her neighbour who is a hopeless romantic trying to find his place in the world as a gay man, the wryly amusing Octavia Spencer as Elisa’s best friend Zelda who is supportive but thinks she should mind her own business, Michael Shannon as the vile head of the research lab who constantly threatens the creature, and Michael Stuhlbarg as Dr. Hoffstetler the ­­­­­considerate scientist. They all have their moments of on-screen glory and their presence make it a robustly populated story.

The work of Doug Jones cannot be ignored in portraying the Amphibian Man as an emotional being with a soulful demeanour, driven by a yearning no less persuasive than that of Elisa.

The visuals, in all hues of aqua, are captured by Dan Laustsen’s graceful cinematography. These are complemented throughout with the sweetly eccentric but sumptuously melodic score by Alexandre Desplat.

Overall, the film feels like an elegant piece of cinema but fails to be acclaimed as a masterpiece.