The Shape of Water
3.5 stars out of 5 ( Between Good & Excellent)
Director : Guillermo Del Toro
English , 2017
The Shape of Water is one of those films that shift their shape in your memory - smoothly engaging during the run-time , and then dissolving into nebulous depths soon after. I am surprised it won the Best Picture Oscar for 2018 and am rather stunned that it was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Director Guillermo Del Toro, no doubt, involvingly tells the story of a captured aquatic humanoid monster , but eventually it tends more towards the prosaic nature of his 'Hellboy' and soars less in the vein of his liberatingly fantastical "Pan's Labyrinth".
The colour-scheme is a saturated tone of sepia - which makes for a starkly pretty canvas here a la 'Amelie'. The initial setting is one of the labs made famous by stock sci-fi Hollywood - a well-guarded lab facility , monitored by the military, and supervised by a monster posing as a human. The latter is essayed by Michael Shannon playing Colonel Richard Strickland , a cudgel-wielding warden who is put in charge of the caught creature. It has been captured from the wild depths of South America where the locals worshipped it as a God. The U.S Military now worships it as a poetic entity that inspires us to be better human beings...No, you know that was a epic typo.
The U.S.M looks to use it as a sacrificial pawn, in their technological race against the Soviets. Unlike many amphibians, it is humanoid, with a bipedal upright posture and a face with eyes and lips, with the crucial factor being its breathing organs that respire both in air and water. With the scientists unable to fully analyze its unique physiology, the military hits upon the brilliant idea of killing the creature by vivisection so that its secrets will be finally laid bare.
In this barbaric equation, where's the relief ? It comes in the form of Elisa Esposito - the facility's petite cleaning woman, who is mute. She is not a physical beauty but there is a gentleness in her demeanour that is like a calming surf. This quietly angelic and elegant essence is exquisitely conveyed by Sally Hawkins. Early on, we see her naked body descending into the bath-tub and I later wondered what was the purpose of this element of nudity apart from its elemental appeal. Presumably, Del Toro's idea is to show her as she is, with no secrets at all , an uncorrupted transparent presence.
She takes a liking to the aquatic humanoid and the feeling turns reciprocal. They are both outsiders , and yes this is a movie that also bows its gills to the plight of the gay, and the African-American. That admirable sentiment should be handled delicately of course, with artful amplification without shouting it from the rooftops, but Del Toro is unable to develop that poignant dynamic to its acme. There are some exquiste whispers to this effect though, as the aged Giles (an excellent Richard Jenkins looking, sounding and emoting very much like an aged Walter White) sits beside a bath-tub and spills his heart out to his partially comprehending one-off counterpart.
The picture is a success on many fronts till the half-way point, and after that while its retains its narrative sensibility, the imagination mucks around on the ocean bed, not finding much to vary the palette. Elisa takes a very bold decision ( cf. the govt.-alleged activity of Wikus van de Merwe of 'District 9' ) and her decision one fine evening to 'run the tap' flows into a gloriously wreckless beauty of a scene. The movie is not coy about what our unshackled Amphibian Man can be, and his encounter with a cat fully justifies a scream. Yes, there are some fantasy touches of what he can do , but it pales in comparison to what Spielberg achieved when he sets Agatha and John loose in a mall in "Minority Report".
The biggest weak link is the villain - Colonel Strickland competently enacted by William Shannon. For me it is impossible to see him without remembering "Jaws" - the giant-like man of craggy-boulder, scary face played by Richard Kiel as the ultimate villain in some Bond movies. Del Toro might very well have been looking to channel this scary-giant effect when he used Shannon for the role. It is worth noting how both the monsters, the one inside the water and the one outside, take a liking toward the simple and docile lady in their perimeter. Shannon though has a very limited brief - to act like an alpha prick with everyone, to bloodily beat up the Ambhibian Man, and to have brutally mechanistic sex with this wife. The role becomes straight-jacketingly two-dimensional and if Shannon tried to improvise some much needed dual shades, it either doesn't come through at all or Del Toro quashes it.
After many failed attempts of trying to reach the theatre, I finally watched the movie on a small screen , and felt none the worse for it. The climax has nice surreal shades to it. I could have asked for more, but I reminded myself to be content with minor mercies.
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