Underneath, there is a shallow plot that could have been a children’s adventure story – and that is a good thing. What if…Beauty and the Beast and beauty was the creature from the black lagoon? What if…ET but filmed so it looked like The City of Lost Children complete with accordion music? A confident film is aware of its connections and the tropes it makes use of without apologising for them or belabouring them. What if…a fairytale but weird and violent and sexual and sexy as fairytales often are.
Del Toro makes this look easy and natural and also obvious – but in a good sense, as if he was filming a story we all knew and expected. A cosy, oft told tale of a cleaner at a secret US facility during the lead up to the Cuban missile crisis and her love (both romantic and physical) with a scary fish monster. If it has a lack as a story it arises out of the familiarity that Del Toro creates which keeps surprises to a minimum.
It is clumsiest in its handling of disability (discussed better than I can here https://www.tor.com/2018/01/16/i-belong-where-the-people-are-disability-and-the-shape-of-water/ ) notably in a sequence in which the central character Elisa, who is mute, sings in a fantasy sequence. That’s not say Sally Hawkins performance isn’t incredible but it is a mistep. The resolution of the film…well it rightly avoided a different cliche (the disabled person being ‘healed’ of their disability) by attempting to subvert what that might mean. Did it do so succesfully?
Sex and sexual desire runs through the film both as perfunctory act and as desire and as a threat and as comedy. Elisa and her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) discussing sexual anatomy as they push their cleaning carts is one of many genuinely funny parts in the film. At other times sex is shown as ugly and selfish (at least for the bad guy Strickland – played by Michael Shannon), lonely but satisfying (Elisa’s daily timed mastrubation) and unobtainable (her neighbour Giles, an ageing gay man, and his infatuation with the server in a franchised pie shop). That true love and great sex are found in unlikely places is a classic Beauty and the Beast trope but typically the sex part is glossed over – not here, there is no ambiguity that Elisa and her Beauty share more than an emotional connection (hence the anatomy discussion).
Doug Jones (currently Saru in Star Trek Discovery) is incredible as the amphibian man at the centre of the story. Plausibly human-like and yet uncomprisingly a fish monster or an Amazonian river god or a sensitive lover.
Great acting, visually beautiful. Hawkins and Spencer are a great double act but Hawkins and Richard Jenkins (playing Elisa’s neighbour Giles) also have some great moments. Shannon’s villain is more one-dimensional but even there Del Toro adds some great touches – such as him studiously reading ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’ like he is the proto-type of the modern day alt-right arsehole. Michael Stuhlberg’s Bob/Dimitri – a conflicted scientist slash soviet spy, rounds out the core cast with his own sub plot that combines its own sharp tensions between comedy and fear.
There’s a light touch here and gelatine desert sweetness that Del Toro both lampshades and cuts through with violence, horror and tension but which is also tempered with genuine human connections via friendship and love.