Tuesday 21 May 2019

Five star film review: The Shape of Water - 'an unexpected and irresistible delight'

5* - Guillermo del Toro's sumptuous sci-fi romance is full of delightful surprises, says Paul Whitington

I’m in love with the shape of you: Sally Hawkins plays mute cleaner Elisa who falls for a humanoid amphibian creature (Doug Jones)
I’m in love with the shape of you: Sally Hawkins plays mute cleaner Elisa who falls for a humanoid amphibian creature (Doug Jones)
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

A film about films, and a lush Cold War melodrama involving an interspecies romance that should be creepy but isn't, Guillermo del Toro's Shape of Water is an unexpected and irresistible delight.

When I first saw it a couple of months back, I knew little or nothing about the story, but it's told with such pervasive warmth and wit that even the more outlandish moments made total sense. That Mr del Toro has managed to get away with all this is nothing short of a cinematic magic trick, which no doubt explains why the film has received 13 Oscar nominations.

There have always been elements of illusion and magic in the Mexican film-maker's work, most famously in Pan's Labyrinth, his visually sumptuous 2006 film which set a nightmarish fairy tale against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. Horror and fairy tales recur in his movies, but he's been accused by some of reaching too high with his visual concepts and falling frustratingly short. That may be true of some of his films, but it's certainly not the case here.

Sally Hawkins, whose moving performance has earned her a Best Actress nomination, plays Elisa Esposito, a mute woman who works as a cleaner at a mysterious government facility in Baltimore. It's the early 1960s, communist paranoia is at its height, and Elisa and her world-weary colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer) are under strict instructions to keep their noses out of the laboratories, where huddled scientists are up to God knows what.

Zelda is unimpressed by all this cloak and dagger stuff. "Some of the best minds in the country," she sniffs as they swab the toilets, "and they pee all over the floor in here." One day, when they're mopping corridors, they see a large metal tank being wheeled into a cavernous lab. It contains a humanoid amphibian creature, an unknown species discovered in a South American river that a sinister army colonel called Strickland (Michael Shannon) wants to dissect.

The Russians are after it as well, and things look grim for this exotic creature until Elisa starts bringing it boiled eggs at lunchtime, and playing music to it on a turntable. Using sign language and soulful gazes to communicate, they form a bond that will eventually head in a surprisingly intimate direction, and when Elisa finds out the creature is about to be killed, she hatches a plan to liberate it.

A surreal conspiracy drama with a big heart, The Shape of Water pits a disparate gang of outsiders against the burgeoning US military industrial complex. Michael Shannon's villain suffers from a chronic lack of imagination that extends to all areas of his life: his long-suffering wife must subsist on brief and loveless bouts of missionary position sex, and Strickland's patriotism mainly involves hating everything he considers un-American.

He's opposed by a coalition of characters who exist on the margins of a homogeneous 1960s society - Elisa, a mute, her black co-worker Zelda, and Elisa's kindly neighbour, a gay artist played by Richard Jenkins. They are gentle, the powers that be most certainly are not, but somehow, love and understanding may just prevail.

Guillermo del Toro's film is delightfully otherworldly and inventive, and inspired in large part by the anxiously allegorical sci-fi movies and TV shows the Cold War inspired.

Creature from the Black Lagoon is the most obvious source, and this creature (played with reptilian skill by Doug Jones) becomes similarly inflamed with love for a human female, but is less an aquatic caveman, more a gilled Cary Grant. Elisa's attraction to the creature is based on a shared sense of isolation, and otherness: like her, the 'monster' cannot speak, but it can see and hear, is sensitive to music and has gloopy eyes capable of beaming out powerful emotions.

She refuses to accept that it, or she, are any less entitled to life than the narrow-minded troglodytes that run the world. The film's climax might stretch credulity, but that's hardly the point: it's bold and beautiful and moves you to tears.

The Shape of Water, (15A, 123mins) 5*

Here's Chris Wasser's The Shape of Water 5* review: The Shape of Water 5* review: 'It’s freaky in all the right places, and sweet in all the appropriate ones, too'

Also out this week, and also 5* - Loveless 5 star movie review: 'A sorry tale of marital breakdown and a grim masterpiece'

Films coming soon...

Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Timothee Chalamet); I, Tonya (Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Bobby Cannavale, Sebastian Stan); Finding your Feet (Imelda Staunton, Celia Imrie, Joanna Lumley, Timothy Spall)

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