This film is an egg. The surface is sleek, pristine, and polished, it glistens with this sort of pristine purity, a film so in love with films, with romance and with period pieces that it would be hard to ask for a bigger love letter to Hollywood cinema in both its golden era and monster movie glory.
But the film is also perilously fragile and applying any pressure to it makes the whole thing start to crack and fall apart. For such a vivid and imaginative film, there’s no gripping substance to the film. Once the actual mess of the film oozes out, it’s like having a raw egg slip through your fingers: gunky, insubstantial and messy.
The film meanders aimlessly through most of its runtime, somewhere between a series of unlikely romantic meetings between deaf janitor Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) and an Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) before morphing into a cold war drama where security man Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) and Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) argue over the best way to use the creature.
Both stories are told in broad strokes with vague characters that make confusion decisions in a film where motives are central to making the story feel believable. The breaking through of the extraordinary into the ordinary requires more solid character moments than this film wants to develop.
What’s left in a lot of beautiful sets on which some fine actors are allowed to play out this drama. The film’s almost worth seeing alone for Sally Hawkins’ strong, occasionally gut-wrenching performance that makes you forget she doesn’t have a single spoken line. Michael Shannon is his usual scenery chewing self here and brings in just the right dosage of slightly unhinged malice. Michael Stuhlbarg is the final stand-out here as this man who has to go toe to toe with Shannon’s energy and somehow diffuse the situation.
A pretty film with some good performances certainly will be enough for some moviegoers, but from talent like this, there could have been so much more beneath the surface here. It lacks both the best frights of a good horror movie or the swelling beats of a good romance or thrilling period drama. There’s plenty to like in The Shape of Water, but nothing to love.
© James Blake Ewing 2018