Overflowing - The Shape of Water
Guillermo Del Torro is a masterful visual storyteller. That ability, at its best, manifests as richly layered tales like Pan's Labyrinth; ones where visual intrigue backs a compelling story and creates an immersive world you never want to leave. This isn't that. The visual intrigue is on full display, but you would be hard-pressed to conjure up an argument that this is a world you want to stay in. The characters are relatively thin and the way they fit together is just a little too neat. The result is an inoffensive, but drab, experience that stretches too long and says less than it intends to.
The film is set in a lab, where Elisa (played by Sally Hawkins) works as a janitors. Because of a childhood incident, Elisa is mute and communicates only in sign language. The lab she works in is a secret government facility and one day they bring in an amphibious creature they intend to study. Colonel Richard Strickland (played by Michael Shannon) receives orders to dissect the creature and learn as much as he can. In the process, he begins torturing the creature, which does not sit well with Elisa who is becoming fond of it.
Elisa's best friend is her next door neighbor, a gay man named Giles (played by Richard Jenkins). Her coworker and closest friend at work is a Black woman named Zelda (played by Octavia Spencer). And Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (played by Michael Stuhlbarg) is one of the lab's scientists and is secretly a Russian spy. As this story takes place in 1960s Baltimore at the height of the Cold War, each of these individuals is marginalized in some way; giving them reason to come together and free the amphibian man, who Elisa is now in love with.
None of that synopsis is out of step for a Del Toro film. He is fond of monsters and fairy tales and uses them to present novel ideas about the world. Here, however, the monster and fairy tale don't seem to be in service of much. Beyond this half-hearted love story that is, as far as I can tell, based on the boiled eggs Elisa shares from her lunch, there is nothing. She says she loves the monster because he doesn't see her faults, but none of it comes across as convincing. The broader theme of the film is misfits joining forces to take on the establishment, but it all falls flat. Aside from the splashy visuals, there isn't a great deal to recommend here.
The one thing in the film that is worthy of high praise is Sally Hawkins' performance. Never has so much been conveyed without words. She is the only reason you remain interested as mediocre characters move around her. If her performance were supported by better characters and a better story, it could conceivably be an all-timer.
It would be hard to argue the film has no merits as the technical work here is truly top shelf, but if you are looking for more than a dazzling technical achievement, probably best to look elsewhere.
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