Cultural Bulletin
Cultural Bulletin is a quarterly magazine that provides an international view of creative work. We look to film, music, design and art as signifiers of our cultural moment.

In Review: The Shape Of Water

Director: Guillermo Del Toro


‘It’s taken me 25 years guys, give me a minute!’

Guillermo Del Toro had certainly earned the right to talk past the orchestral music during his Golden Globes speech when accepting the award of Best Director for his new film The Shape of Water. Back in 2006, when he made good on his promise of The Devil’s Backbone (2001) by creating the extraordinary modern fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth, he was already being lauded as an exceptional talent. And when Del Toro talks of monsters, as he did so emotively that night, it’s hard not to get swept up in his deep love for the metaphorical power they can hold. It’s that same feeling that seeps from the edges of his new critic-pleasing, socially on-point The Shape of Water.

Like Pan’s Labyrinth, this is fairy tale for adults; the fable offers the magic and romanticism of Beauty and the Beast with an edge of brutality and gore that Del Toro often adds to his ever-bubbling cauldron of films. Here he takes us to post Cold War America ‘in a small city near the coast but far from everything else’ where Sally Hawkin’s Elisa works as a cleaner in a mysterious research facility. Elisa has been mute from birth but under her vulnerable exterior we get to know her as someone who is steely, resolute and erotic (be ready for naked-bath-masturbation within 2 minutes).

Things take a turn for Eliza when Colonel Richard Strickland (played with menace and savagery by Michael Shannon) brings a mysterious creature into the facility. Being 1962, America is frantically jostling for the number 1 World Super Power spot with Russia, and their hope is that by studying this amphibious creature, they will gain an advantage in the Space Race. Eliza soon stumbles across The Asset (played by Del Toro’s Monster-In-Chief, Doug Jones) and they begin to find comfort in each other through non-verbal communication and hard-boiled eggs.

The film hangs on the believability of the romance afoot. On the surface, it’s an Amazonian river god making love to a mute cleaner. And they’ve not known each other long. So do the outcasts make for a convincing couple? Well, yes and no. Sally Hawkins delivers a performance that is affecting and poignant yet has moments of subtle comedy - clearly influenced by Charlie Chaplin. For the first hour, it seems Del Toro has cast his spell over this most unlikely of love affairs. However, even for a whirlwind romance, things begin to move a tad too quickly. Before we know it, Eliza and her indignant posse of friends are plotting to free The Asset.

Frustratingly, for all the immersive magic Del Toro creates, the film is restrained by the surprisingly straightforward and predictable narrative. Also, at times, the secondary characters feel like they are there to ensure current cultural significance is achieved: a gay man struggling with acceptance; a black woman with a racist, white boss; a racist, white boss with a racist, white boss. 

This film has already been a huge critical success, with reviews and awards honouring work from a filmmaker who is willing to push cinematic boundaries. ‘For 25 years I have handcrafted very strange little tales made of motion, colour, light and shadow,’ Del Toro also said during his speech at the Hilton in California. It’s a wonderful type of cinema he is creating, and even if this film isn’t his best work, it’s certainly an enjoyable addition to a genre he is helping to define. Here’s to 25 more. TS

Film, In ReviewTom SilverFilm