“If I spoke about it – If I did – what would I tell you, I wonder? Would I tell you about the time...? It happened a long time ago – in the last days of a fair Prince’s reign... Or would I tell you about the place? A small city near the coast but far from everything else... Or would I tell you about her? The princess without voice...”
These are the opening lines to Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, and they seem to promise us a traditional fairy tale, but the director very quickly disabuses us of any notion that this is a film for all the family. Within minutes of being introduced to her, we see Eliza (Sally Hawkins) masturbating in the bathtub – a daily morning ritual, it seems – and later there are many gruesomely violent sights in store for us, from one man’s nearly severed fingers growing black and pungent with infection to someone being dragged across the ground by a finger hooked through the bloody hole in his cheek. No, The Shape of Water is definitely not for kids.
And yet, there is something inherently childish about del Toro’s film. Perhaps the director believes that he is making a mature work by filling it with sex, violence and swearing, but I’d rather see some maturity in his storytelling, some hint of moral shading or ambiguity. The Shape of Water exists almost entirely on the surface; a high-concept premise executed in the most basic way. The film asks us to buy into a fantastical romance but it doesn't put in the ground work required to give that relationship a genuine emotional resonance, and del Toro relies too heavily on his extremely talented cast to transcend the one-dimensional characterisations he has given them and invest the film with something that feels real. To their credit, they almost get it there.
A lot of that weight rests on Sally Hawkins' slender shoulders. As the mute heroine, who dances around in private moments with images of classic films swimming in her mind, it would have been easy for Hawkins to overplay the winsome innocence and become cloying, but there's a quiet determination and a vital flintiness in her performance. When the villainous Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) attempts to intimidate her, she responds with a knowing smile before signing F-U-C-K-Y-O-U to score a silent victory over this tyrant. Hawkins can't really sell her attraction to the fish/man creature that's at the heart of The Shape of Water, though. She might have been capable of this feat given ample time, but del Toro rushes through the various stages in the relationship with indecent haste. Within the first 45 minutes of the movie she has moved from wanting to feed the merman eggs and communicate with it, to taking it home and having sex with it. Where exactly does this desire spring from? Doesn't she feel any trepidation, despite seeing it sever a man's fingers and eat a cat?
Everyone in The Shape of Water moves on straight lines, clearly delineated as good guys and bad guys. Michael Shannon is an actor capable of nuance but del Toro doesn't ask him to provide any. He and his superior General Hoyt (Nick Searcy) are the real monsters of the film, representing American authority figures terrorising the band of outsiders (a freak of nature, a mute woman, a black woman and a gay man) whom we are encouraged to cheer for. The one character who alters in our perception is Michael Stuhlbarg, as an initially shifty scientist who is subsequently revealed to be on the side of the angels, but he’s stuck in a useless Soviet subplot that has little to do with the main narrative. The lurking Red Menace just feels like another ‘60s Americana trope that del Toro is adding to the background of his film like it's just another piece of production design; like the handsome, smiling guy in a diner who is revealed to be both homophobic and racist in the space of 30 seconds in a laughable scene.
Del Toro’s scripts often feel like they are lagging some distance behind his direction. The Shape of Water is as lovingly designed as you'd expect it to be (even if I found the insistent green/red colour scheme to be a little drab and tiring), and he pulls off some beautiful individual moments. I loved the bookending shots of Eliza floating in water, and the charming, intimate scenes in which she and her neighbour Giles (a wonderful Richard Jenkins) are captivated by old movies on TV, but these are just isolated moments of inspiration in a film that often feels pedestrian and frustratingly sloppy in its storytelling. I couldn’t watch Eliza fill her bathroom with water without wondering why the floor didn’t give way, or pondering the damage caused to the cinema downstairs, and I couldn’t overlook the character inconsistencies and logical leaps necessitated by the film’s plotting in the final stages. I’m not asking for a fantasy movie to be watertight, but The Shape of Water is too easy, too complacent and too obvious to achieve the emotional force that I wanted to be swept away by.