‘Love is All Around Us’ sang Wet Wet Wet in that dreadful song which was number one forever all those years ago, and those are the twin themes of this film – love and water (and it’s all around us and it’s wet, wet, wet).
Sally Hawkins – last seen playing the title role in Maudie as a crippled, backward, inarticulate, put-upon, abused naïve artist – here plays Elisa Esposito, a mute, lonely, unloved cleaner in a secretish US military facility in the early 1960s, in the early days of the Space race. She has two friends – her cheery fellow cleaner with the feckless husband, Zelda, played by Octavia Spencer (so good in last year’s Hidden Figures) and a strange, failed artist neighbour Giles, played by Richard Jenkins and looking uncannily like Jim Broadbent.
Into the secretish facility comes a strange, possibly alien, humanoid water monster, two arms, two legs, scaly body, vaguely human head, which (who?) has been captured and brought to the facility for tests. The monster is chained, brutalised by the evil Strickland (Michael Shannon) and kept in a tank of yes, water. (The whole facility with its long, echoing metal corridors, its heavy green doors, old fashioned machines and dials is beautifully realised). Elisa, who as a cleaner, is anonymous and invisible to the scientists and soldiers, while left alone with the monster, hands him (it?) an egg from her packed lunch, and thus begins an unlikely, touching, sad but ultimately uplifting love story. The monster can’t talk and nor can she and so she teaches him some rudimentary sign language.
The message of the film is too obvious for words – she sees the tenderness beneath the monster’s scary carapace and the monster sees the inner beauty in the mute and unloved cleaner. It shouldn’t work – this beauty and the beast plot has been around forever, probably ever since not very attractive people dreamed of meeting someone who would see them as attractive – but it does, mainly because of Hawkins who is superb, as ever, but also because the monster remains unknowable, except to Hawkins.
There are some minor sub-plots, largely there to pad out the story, and there are some scenes which I didn’t quite get.
‘Why was she masturbating?’ my son asked me, when we left the cinema. And I could only give him the obvious answer – because it was there. Was it to show that she too had sexual feelings, later to be opened for the monster? Maybe, and if so, it worked and she did open.
Hawkins’ neighbour has an odd sub-plot – he used to be an artist, fired from his job for some unspecified reason and constantly trying to get his job back. He is unnecessarily revealed as homosexual in an unnecessary scene in a pie shop.
Michael Shannon as the brutal, violent commander of the facility reprises his character from Boardwalk Empire rather too closely for my liking, and there is another minor sub-plot involving some Russian spies who seek to influence the Americans (where have we heard that before?) It does lead to the best line of the film though:
‘We need to learn from this monster,’ says one Russian spy to another.
‘No,’ he replies. ‘We need for the Americans not to learn.’ (And of course they don’t).
I won’t reveal the ending; it won’t come as a great surprise although there were some elements I found unsatisfying.
The Shape of Water, written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, is trite and hackneyed and rather obvious with a message that beats you over the head but there are stories which bear re-telling down the centuries and this is one of them. As long as there are people on the margins, to whom the rest of the world turns a blind eye and laughs when they seek romance, there will be a place for their story to be told. And if it sometimes plays out like an episode of The Undateables – so what? That show, too, teaches us that everyone deserves a little love in their lives and that, yes, love is all around us – if we will only see it.