Fishing for Compliments: ‘The Shape of Water’ is abundant in derivation and lacking in fluidity

Remember everything cool and interesting about Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth? Want to see an Americanised, commercialised, risk-averse rehash of that film’s ideas? I give you The Shape of Water, the latest disappointment from Del Toro — once one of the most exciting directors working (for a very short period, I’ll admit), now perpetually spinning old fantasy rhetoric into new environments with films like the ghastly Crimson Peak and now this period romance, undeniably his best film since 2008 but nonetheless a weak and muddled assortment of genre tropes, patched together with a supposedly topical message of kindness and respect that’s forced.

With all due respect to the personally likeable director, human stories have never been the strongest elements of his films, and The Shape of Water relies far too heavily on its human characters and not enough on the underlying fairytale mythology — which is what Del Toro typically excels at. The compassion of this project can’t save it from mediocrity. Take Sally Hawkins’ Elisa (whose name I honestly had to Google), a mute cleaner in a 1960s Baltimore laboratory. Aside from her condition and Hawkins’ exhausting expressiveness, Elisa lacks any genuine characterisation. Michael Shannon’s Colonel Strickland is the inverse: sadistic, permanently on edge.

Del Toro in no way pushes Hawkins or Shannon beyond their standard role; it’s a waste of both their considerable talents. It’s a source of joy to see Richard Jenkins get so much screentime in a film, and his role is extremely well-intentioned, yet something about his lonely closeted gay artist just doesn’t click; everything in the film feels as fake as the smiles on his billboards, even when it’s trying so hard to be real.

As is expected, my boy Michael Stuhlbarg single-handedly saves The Shape of Water. My love, my life, there is nothing this man cannot do. It seems at first that his character is minor — he barely speaks in the first act — but then Del Toro follows him home from the lab and we learn his real intentions. Stuhlbarg gets to speak Russian — a thrill — but also is the victim of some brutal violence, which upset me to no end. Still, it was a damn good decision by Del Toro to include him in the film.

The Shape of Water’s weaknesses are rooted in its delayed embrace of genre. Within 2 minutes, Octavia Spencer shows up shit-talking white men — I add that this is typically a source of great entertainment for me, but that sort of identity comedy doesn’t quite fit with this film. A film, I have yet to mention, that features a fish person who ends up having sex with Sally Hawkins’ character. Which wouldn’t be weird at all, were Spencer and Jenkins not loitering on the edges of the story, dragging the timeless fairytale material into a more contemporary narrative environment.

The fish person is played by Doug Jones, a tremendously talented prosthetic performer in films like Pan’s Labyrinth, but it’s just not that fascinating a character. He and Elisa aren’t given sufficient time to convince us of their bond, then suddenly they’re flooding Richard Jenkins’ bathroom. Bad form. Inevitably the film gets into Heist Mode and there is trickery used to help the fish person escape his cruel confines. It just lacks originality on every level.

This film is a well-directed but very, very odd hybrid of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Imitation Game and Hellboy. Some sequences are, to be honest, appallingly ill-judged. It is far from ‘great’, or any sort of masterpiece. Had nobody told me it was, I would’ve had a more pleasant time watching it.