There are some aspects of Del Toro’s monster love story that are nigh on perfect. At the top of this list is Michael Shannon’s portrayal of the malicious, deranged authoritarian Strickland who so easily could have been a two dimensional character. He adds the kind of depth and friction that made his Van Alden one of the most compelling characters in Boardwalk Empire. This is a man who’s straightness is his anchor but for whom that straightness is also destructive. He is thus at war with himself and everything as he seeks to resolve this impossible tension, we all know that a terrible reckoning is coming. The film’s best scenes are when he’s rushing to that reckoning with duty and anger.
The film’s other great star is it’s aesthetic. The aqua and teal tones are echoed through the uniforms, wallpaper, lighting and paintwork of the institution, blurring the boundary between worlds just as an amphibian exists at that intersection. It has a painterly quality, like the most luscious comic books.
The 1950s styling, cold war paranoia and shaping of the American dream also provide the perfect context. “You’re the man of the future” a car salesman tells Strickland. Del Toro reminds us through the central cast – a mute cleaner, elderly gay man and black woman – that this dream was not inclusive, indeed all dreams end up excluding some, who are then compelled to create their own alternative dreams.
Last year I went to see Del Toro’s exhibition in Toronto. What that made me appreciate was that films are really a vehicle for Del Toro to exercise his real passion, which is the minute development of an alternative, fantastical world – to create all the detailed artefacts, the rich depth in every scene. Sometimes his plots don’t do service to the aesthetic (Pacific Rim, Blade 2) but when they marry up (Pans Labyrinth, Crimson Peak) both elements reinforce each other. Shape is in this latter category.
But would it make me seem entirely without a soul if I said I found it lagging in places? That the love story between Amphibian Man and Sally Hawkins Amélie-esque Esposito didn’t resonate? That the inevitable chase didn’t generate the tension it should? Every year there is a film that critics label “life affirming”, but then often they don’t have longevity and after the initial rush everyone seems rather embarrassed by them. I mean, can you find anyone now who loves La La Land? Shape of Water does not quite fall into this category, it is far too cinematic and visually beautiful for that, but it’s also not quite the balm for your fractured soul that the reviews might have you believe.