Since it won at Venice, I’ve written about The Shape of Water a few times. I don’t love it like some clearly do – 13 Oscar nominations and 12 BAFTA nods attest to that – but I totally see why it impresses so many.
It’s the story, the fable, of a mute cleaner in a top secret American underground facility and her growing relationship with an aquatic creature captured and treated as an alien.
Told by Guillermo del Toro, it’s an outsider’s paradise, an arm around the misunderstood, the lonely and the meek. There’s a big bad bully in charge (Michael Shannon) who tortures the ‘alien’ while only mute Sally Hawkins treats it nice, sharing hard boiled eggs and jazz music on her portable record player.
I think you need a high tolerance for whimsy and fantasy to love it and to take the leap of imagination required. You also need a few B-movie and musical references (The Creature from the Black Lagoon, for example) but nothing too in-depth. But you also need to feel something, and that’s where it lost me. it gets silly where the original King Kong – for just one example of famous on-screen inter-species love – got amazing. There’s too much metaphor and fairytale quirk for me – the fact that Sally lives above an old cinema, the shady agents in hats, the bug-eyed horridness of Octavia Spencer’s performance, the homosexuality of Richard Jenkins’ character. It all felt lathered on and a distraction from the sad impossibility of the love story.
I know that creating this world is exactly what the film’s about – and the oppression and repression of the 50s/60s, the mistrust of the ‘alien’ and how it’s all similar to the America of now – but subtlety slithered away for me. Weirdly, for something so out there and original, I felt I’d seen it all before. And after a certain key scene involving Sally and the creature, all I kept thinking about was how right WC Fields was when he said: “Never drink water – fish fuck in it.”