Why in the world I keep taking myself to the cinema when I know I don’t enjoy the experience is beyond me. I’ve been twice in the past few weeks – before that I hadn’t been for years. I don’t like cinemas for the simple reason that there are other people in them. Although the screens are much better than the one on my little Macbook, I am more than happy to deal with a lower resolution if it means I don’t have to sit in a room with humans.
However, when Guillermo del Toro brings out a new film I find it hard to resist, because I love his work and want to support him. So off I went to see The Shape of Water, which was beautiful and had Doug Jones in it, whom I also love.
I fully expected to fall head over heels for this movie, because it had so many elements I usually enjoy: a bluey-greeny-watery theme; Doug Jones; outsiders feeling understood by each other; people triumphing because they’ve been underestimated; Guillermo del Toro directing.
So why didn’t I feel anything?
Well, maybe not nothing. The film was very beautiful, and when I left the cinema and walked home I felt a bit like I was still in the underwater world, which was very pleasant. It also gave me some inspiration for my flat renovation project, which was helpful. But the storyline didn’t move me, which was strange because it should have.
There were certain parts of the story in which it was obvious we were supposed to be very moved; one of them is visible in the trailer:
When he looks at me, he does not know how I am incomplete. He sees me as I am.
That bit of the trailer was a large part of why I went to see the film. Surely that would move anyone? Just watching the trailer, it made me feel something; yet somehow when I was in the cinema, watching it on the big screen..? Nothing.
I think there were a few reasons for this, and one of them was just how unlikely the entire storyline was. I particularly disliked the ending, which lost a lot of points from me because it looked like it was going one way and then suddenly, unrealistically veered off into a much happier direction and then the lights came on. It felt cheap and like it was pandering to what people might want to see; patronising the audience with a happy-ever-after, rather than ending on a more grown-up note. I sent this to my friend a couple of days after I’d seen it, and it sums up (albeit not very eloquently) the problem I had with the ending:
Another thing I was expecting to see more about was Elisa’s scars. We are introduced to a character who can’t speak but can hear, who lives next door to an artist who is one of two friends she has in the world, the other being Zelda, the lady she’s on cleaning duty with. It makes sense therefore that Elisa feels compassion for Doug Jones’ character, the fish-man (or perhaps fish-god, it’s never completely clear), when she discovers he’s being held captive and that people want to vivisect him.
The scars in question are on the side of her neck:
They are the reason why she can’t speak, apparently, although again this isn’t fully explained. She was found by a river as a child with these scars, and has been mute since she was found. They’re barely referenced throughout the film, except in brief passing explanation and then at the end, when fish-god-dude turns them into gills so Elisa can live happily ever after with him in his underwater kingdom.
There are various theories floating around about why that might be possible and why Elisa fell so hopelessly in love with fish-god-dude rather than simply feeling compassion for someone else who’s misunderstood. The theories make sense, but they’re not obvious from the film. While I quite like being made to think when watching something, I don’t love holes in storylines that audiences are meant to fill in, which is what this felt like.
I guess I was expecting something a bit darker from a Guillermo del Toro film for adults. I wondered when we first saw the scars whether they’d been put there by fish-god-dude or someone like him, and Elisa was being drawn towards something she couldn’t help loving even though it might harm her. But there was none of that; in fact, all of the characters were quite shallow and one-dimensional. Elisa and fish-god-dude and her cleaner friend Zelda and her artist friend Giles were The Good Guys; the people who were trying to kill fish-god-dude were The Bad Guys. There wasn’t any nuance.
And I really don’t want to say this next bit, but I have to if I’m going to give an honest review: for the first time ever, I wasn’t convinced by Doug Jones’ acting. I KNOW I KNOW I LOVE HIM TOO IT HURTS ME TO SAY IT. But it’s true.
Normally I am amazed by how well Jones acts through layers of prosthetics; Saru is one of the main reasons I’m still watching Star Trek: Discovery. But this time there didn’t seem to be a lot of substance to it.
Talking it over with a friend, I think it had something to do with the specific prosthetics he was wearing; I think Jones does a lot of his acting with his eyes and his hands, both of which were limited by the costume. This left him with very few possibilities for creating a convincing character, especially considering the amount of time he spent half-submerged: he had to get by with head tilts and strange clicking noises, which just didn’t quite convince me.
In summary, I don’t regret going to see it because it was pretty and it gave me a lot of inspiration for how I want my living room to look. Equally, however, I thought it left a lot to be desired and I don’t understand how it won so many Oscars.
Have you seen it? What did you think?