Because I am a deeply shallow person, my favourite bit of The Shape of Water is the credit Guillermo del Toro got for doing the creature noises. I have too much respect for him to think that he did this just to screw Doug Jones out of the rate for a speaking part, though there is a bit of me which would admire such grandiose pettiness. I just thought it was funny that such a self-serious movie shared something with all the Despicable Me movies, for which director Pierre Coffin has always provided the giddy blithering of the minions.
Other than that, The Shape of Water is primarily del Toro’s best film ever to win a best film Oscar. It’s never less than good, but it never rises to the level of Pan’s Labyrinth - nor, in fairness, does it swing off into the gorgeous swivel-eyed lunacy of Crimson Peak. If you’re a del Toro fan, your main reaction is likely to be, well, fair enough, he had an Oscar coming, but it’s coming to the wrong movie.
Still, it’s a very del Toro movie. The monster is the white establishment male filled with rage and murder, and he only gets what’s coming to him when he’s ruined everything. Step forward Michael Shannon as Robert Strickland. Michael Shannon always plays people who should have been sectioned before they left high school, and instead have been given guns and badges. He was born to play a del Toro villain, and I hope that now they’ll let him play someone who’s, I don’t know, sane. Or something.
Sally Hawkins, meanwhile, is as close as I’ve seen to a follow up to the female cast of Pan’s Labyrinth, somehow capturing the courage and wonder of Ofelia and the frailty of her mother all in one bravely withdrawn performance. However, making her character mute leaves me scratching my head about you could ever score this movie on the Bechdel test. There are, just about, two named female characters (Octavia Spencer’s Zelda is the other one), and they do kind of have conversations, but I don’t know that they have one which isn’t about a man, or about an amphibian man. And yet I’d say that this is a movie which has some things to say about the world which women had to inhabit around the time I was born, and how it’s a good thing that it’s not like that any more. It’s just that there has to be some way to tell these stories that isn’t completely dominated by the monstrousness of men.
And the dinginess of the past. Everything is worn and old and battered, even the things which logically would have been new. The one great exception is Robert Strickland’s shiny new Cadillac, which he doesn’t deserve. The whole audience cheered and laughed when a van gets gratuitously crashed into it and ruins its looks for ever. That was my second favourite bit. Strickland’s barely got into his stride as a monster at this point, and I still took an uncomplicated joy out of the idea of his new car getting wrecked.
It’s a great looking movie, filled with pathos, and sometimes with an unbearable sense of tension; as always in del Toro, this is not going to end well, and the only question is just how badly it’s all going to pan out. That question’s never really answered; the story’s being told by someone who didn’t really see the ending, and is just hoping that it was a happy one; what you take away from it will depend on whether you can hold that hope as well.