“The Shape of Water”
Fox Searchlight Pictures
2 hours, 3 minutes
This week marks the second of the major Oscar nominees I’ve seen in as many weeks, though this time I, unfortunately wasn’t able to see the movie close to home. It was in Anchorage where I was finally able to watch Guillermo Del Toro’s critically acclaimed “The Shape of Water,” a fairy tale romance that tells the the tale of the torrid love affair between a mute cleaning lady and a captive fish-man in Cold War-era America.
As bizarre as this set-up sounds, “Shape of Water” has a lot to recommend it. Beautiful production design matched by equally beautiful performances and a sharp, yet achingly emotional screenplay make this film a definite contender for the top prize of the year. And yet … there’re a few problems here that, unfortunately, run deep.
Sally Hawkins, well-known in her native Britain, but mostly known to Americans as the mom in the “Paddington” movies (well, this American, anyway), is Elisa Esposito, unable to talk since she was a child, now working as a maid for a secretive science lab somewhere in Middle America in the 1960s.
Elisa, despite the apparent drudgery of her life, is a vibrant, happy person who maintains a sense of optimism, no matter what’s thrown at her. She is ordered and organized, but that won’t stop her from tap-dancing down the hall after being inspired by some old movie. She lives in a small apartment above a dilapidated, yet somehow still grand old movie house, and frequently lets herself in next door to check on her neighbor, Giles, a struggling commercial artist, thrown out of his ad agency after (we presume) his sexual orientation became an open secret. Giles, played by the towering character actor Richard Jenkins, depends on Lisa and she on him. But everything is up in the air the day the creature is brought in.
There’s so much about this film that I liked — I nearly forgot about Octavia Spencer as Zelda, Lisa’s work buddy, and Michael Shannon as the unraveling Strickland, the film’s undisputed villain. And what about Doug Jones as the fish man, or “amphibian man” as the film correctly labels him? Jones has a history of playing odd, barely human characters for del Toro, as he did in “Hellboy” and “Pan’s Labyrinth.”
But those parts of the film that bother me won’t seem to go away. For one, “Water” suffers from a common problem — that of compressed time. The time allotted for Lisa and the creature to get past their fears of each other well enough to actually fall in love is much too short. It’s not that I don’t believe their relationship, it’s just that the creature is so “other,” so alien, that I don’t see how all the emotional attachments could have formed in a week or two. Speaking of …
“The Shape of Water” is becoming well-known for more than just it’s beautiful cinematography and interesting plot. This is becoming known as the movie where a woman has sex with a fish, to put it bluntly. While he’s technically not a fish, this assessment is not actually far from the truth. I understand why the film does this. Del Toro does not want this to be a relationship between a woman and her buddy — her pet. We’re in full-on “Beauty and the Beast” territory, taking that idea to it’s logical conclusion.
This is a film for adults, and as such, the filmmakers want this to a be a full-fledged adult relationship. I get it. The film handles these scenes tastefully — even beautifully, and they are never explicit.
And yet, I wish the story had done the same thing, but with a strong, established emotional bond. The sex just took me out of the story. Not necessarily because it’s weird, but because I didn’t buy it. Why would either of them be physically attracted to the other? This isn’t gender we’re talking about — it’s species. And the beast isn’t just sort of fishy — he’s not Aquaman, he’s a full-on fish-man, as the movies says, “a wild creature.”
I could easily be convinced that a dolphin is a complex, intelligent creature capable of the full gamut of emotional attachments — that it’s the equal of a human. I’m still not seeing that relationship going any further than colleague.
Speaking of “Beauty and the Beast,” this is not the first film to retell that tale, but there’s always been an aspect of those stories that bothers me. The moral is, of course, don’t judge a book by its cover — that different doesn’t equal bad. That’s a great lesson, one that is, however, always undercut by those tales at the end, whether you’re talking about the original Grimm version or “Shrek.”
Without giving away one of the film’s secrets, I’ll say that “Shape of Water” ends up taking the same path, much to my disappointment.
Ultimately, I feel like this modern day remake of “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” is a success. The good — the characters, the dialogue, the look and feel of the film, all outweigh the problems, though those problems are not insignificant. Is this the best film of the year? No — that honor should go to “Get Out,” or, in another world, “The Big Sick” or even “Blade Runner 2049,” but there is enough here to honor that I’m glad such a strange and beautiful film has gotten the attention it has.
“The Shape of Water” is rated R for language, violence, sexual content and graphic nudity.
Chris Jenness is an art teacher, freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.