movie film review | chris tookey

Shape of Water

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  Shape of Water Review
Tookey's Rating
5 /10
Average Rating
7.45 /10
Sally Hawkins , Octavia Spencer , Michael Shannon
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Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Written by: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor

Released: 2017
Origin: US
Length: 123

Fishy Oscar-bait about a cleaner who falls for an aquatic creature. The fascists around her are gutted.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Some of director Guillermo del Toroís work leans towards the comic-book, especially the Hellboy movies, Pacific Rim and Blade 2. The Shape of Water is more like his art-house movies: The Devilís Backbone, Chronos and his masterpiece, Panís Labyrinth.

The movie is lovely to look at and technically well-crafted. It has outstanding cinematography by the Danish veteran Dan Laustsen (who worked with del Toro on Mimic and Crimson Peak), fanatically detailed production design by Paul D. Austerberry, and a splendidly atmospheric score by Alexandre Desplat.

It strives for the dreamlike quality of Cocteauís La Belle et la Bete, the simplicity of Spielbergís ET and the paranoid Cold War mindset of monster movies of the 1950s, especially The Creature From The Black Lagoon. It throws in references to movies Ė mostly musical comedies Ė from earlier eras, principally the 1930s and 1940s.

It had most critics squealing with delight as they went along with all the tonal dissonances and recognized some of the movie references, but not me.

I was slightly put off by its tonal imbalances. Graphic violence, nudity, decapitation and explicit sex acts are interspersed with a feelgood whimsy that evokes other female-centred fantasies, especially Jean-Pierre Jeunetís cloyingly sweet Amelie. Cutesy romance and extreme brutality donít sit easily together.

I could also pick many holes in the plot. I know this is magic realism, but it is set against a grimly realistic background. Itís hard to know why two cleaners are allowed such unimpeded access to the creature, and itís weird that the security cameras are so poorly positioned that inexperienced, not particularly intelligent people can effect an easy escape with it. Why is there maximum security everywhere except around the creature?

Thereís no depth or complexity in any of the characters, which is why I find the awarding of Oscar nominations to several members of the cast extremely questionable, efficient as those performances are.

But the main trouble is that The Shape of Water isnít just a fantasy film evoking an imagined world or past movie delights; itís a piece of very 21st century propaganda. Itís not so good if you consider its message.

The Shape of Water is set in 1962 Baltimore, at the height of the Cold War. The central villain of the piece is a US government agent called Strickland, played with extraordinary ferocity by Michael Shannon, whose monstrousness is compounded by the fact that, with a bolt through his neck, he could pass for Frankensteinís monster without make-up.

Heís fond of using his electric cattle-prod on those he considers beneath him. He calls it his ďAlabama howdy-dooĒ, a clear reference to the way southern police beat up civil rights protesters around the same period. Just in case we miss the point, del Toro shows cops beating up protesters in the background, on TV.

Itís also made clear that Strickland is a patriot, a Christian, a racist, and a fully committed employee of the American military-industrial complex, personified in the film by a stony-faced General (Nick Searcy) who agrees with Strickland that the fishy alien must be vivisected, rather than understood. Aliens are, you see, all dangerous and must be destroyed, in line with what del Toro clearly considers to have been US policy in the early Sixties. This would probably have been news to John F. Kennedy, who was President between 1961 and 1963.

The characters who empathise with the alien and want to get to know him better are all from oppressed minorities. Poor Eliza (Sally Hawkins) has lowly social status because she has a Mexican name, is disabled and is sexually terrorised by Strickland because sheís female and mute (we see from his home life and hear from his own mouth that he doesnít like women who answer him back).

Elizaís friend (Octavia Spencer) is a victim because sheís black and therefore confined to menial cleaning tasks, and because sheís married to a good-for-nothing man, whose blackness should make him good, but as a late scene shows heís too cowardly to stand up to white oppression and therefore hardly black at all.

Elizaís other friend is her gay neighbour (Richard Jenkins), who has been booted out of his job as a commercial artist either because he is ageing or because heís gay, and canít even reach out to men he hopes may be gay as well because of repressive laws and homophobia (conveniently, thereís a barman who neatly represents not only homophobia but racism).

The other good guy is a Socialist immigrant scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg), whose instincts as a fellow ďalienĒ are to help the creature, but is overruled by Soviet officials for whom he is spying Ė more of those toxically masculine, white, privileged heterosexual men the film is asking us to fear and loathe. At one point, this good guy murders an American soldier guarding the creature, but hey... give the guy a break. Heís murdering for a progressive cause.

When I saw the film at a public screening, several in the audience walked out. My guess is that they were put off by the leading lady masturbating in the bath and by the cliched characters, who are meant to be archetypes but come across as stereotypes. Or they might just have been bored.

They may also have been disturbed by the film-makerís obvious sympathy for bestiality. In the filmís one fantasy sequence - though you could argue that the whole film is a fantasy Ė our leading lady finds her voice and takes part in a Hollywood musical comedy dance with her fishy friend, whoís transformed into a sort of amphibian Fred Astaire. If this sounds faintly ludicrous as opposed to magical, it is. Itís meant to have the charm of similar sequence in The Artist, but it reminded me of the monster attempting to sing Putting on the Ritz, in Young Frankenstein, Hey, maybe thatís just me being insensitive, or having a sense of humour

I suppose what alienated me most was how didactic this movie is. I fear that del Toro, whom I liked very much when I met him, has succumbed to the temptations of political correctness. Fans of the film will claim itís a harmless, romantic, childlike fantasy; but its political purpose is clear enough Ė to make audiences feel superior about their modern, progressive prejudices and turn their back on anyone with more conservative values.

It is, in other words, strikingly illiberal in its liberalism. Maybe Guillermoís been in Hollywood too long. Best picture of 2017? Itís certainly one of the best-looking, but I reckon it won the Oscar for Best Film and Director mainly because it told the Academy Awards electorate what it wanted to hear.

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