The Shape of Water(2017) Review

Director : Guillermo del Toro
Genre : Fantasy Drama
Synopsis : At a top-secret research facility in the 1960s, a lonely janitor forms a unique relationship with an amphibious creature that is being held in captivity.

Storytelling Takes A Beating For The Sake of Art!

Lovers of what are called as arthouse films resent the label of them being called as elitist, while those who detest these kind of films bristle at the slightest implication that there is no artistry or intelligence left in mainstream entertainment. Are arthouse films truly pretentious or are they just an endangered species?

Blame it on the current movie era of CGI driven superhero flicks that are solely made to provide cheap thrills in the form of trite visuals of explosives after explosives, I believed for the longest time that the magic of movies was dead. And along came a film last year that served as a cure to this savagery. A film that would be lapped up by lovers of arthouse cinema, and still have the tag of mainstream attached with it. That film was La La Land, which was a movie about the movies, which made me fall in love with the movies all over again. 

The Shape of Water is a similar kind of film, one that aims to serve as a commentary on cinema's bygone capacity to produce a unique kind of magic. I can imagine filmmaker Guillermo del Toro wanting to make a piece of cinema in which the filmmaker is not seen as an executive who simply illustrates a pre-existing script, but is rather seen as a visionary whose work can not only tell a story, but can also create a meta space that reflects on the power of cinema as a unique medium. 

The real magic of The Shape of Water is how it effortlessly switches genres. At times, it's a good old monster movie, a romantic fairy tale, an ode to classic cinema like La La Land, and a Cold War espionage thriller. 

The intention behind the film is clear - to create a cinematic experience where the magical realism is at its most effective primarily because it blends its fantasy elements so seamlessly into realistic fiction that viewers don't bother to even try to figure out what's behind the magic. Instead, it's best to allow your imagination to lead you into the wondrous world of the story being told. Take for instance one of the film's best sequences in which a mute character wants to express her love to a beast, but is unable to do so. In order to understand her frustration, we get to see her in a Broadway style song and dance sequence where she actually sings!

It is through such sequences that the director manages to conjure up this kind of nostalgic magic, albeit only partially. So while the film is a visual delight and mesmerizes us with its imaginative power, it doesn't even come close to groundbreaking in terms of its story, choosing instead to employ a 'beauty and the beast' style template. A lot of it is predictable, and while the revelatory climactic sequence makes sense of the many plotholes, you are as a viewer, never quite convinced of the budding romance between its two leads. And that itself takes away half the magic.

Sally Hawkins is the glue that somehow manages to bind together whatever magic is left in this lovely but complacent movie. From putting eggs to boil on the stove, to cleaning toilets, to getting into the bathtub, and pleasuring herself, she plays her wordless character Elisa with consummate grace. You can even spot influences of Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy and Buster Keaton in her performance. 

Michael Shannon plays the antagonist Strickland as a disintegrating man(literally!) who's laser focused on enforcing a white, suburban, two-kids-and-a-dog vision of America, and he doesn't understand why it isn't making him happy. Only an actor like Michael Shannon can go over the top and still get away with it. However, you do wish his character was given some depth or nuance. 

There is no denying that Guillermo del Toro is a world class film artist who is very much in control of his craft. However, you wish he would not have sacrificed character development for stunning visuals. It is through these visuals that the director tries to cast a spell on his audience. However, a clear lack of well fleshed out, three dimensional characters made me force myself to get spellbound by the film's magic, rather than naturally get seduced by its magical charm.

I'm going with 3/5.


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