The Shape of Water (15)
Running time 2hr 3min
WHILE each successive Guillermo del Toro release can only further cement his legend as a visual maestro like few others working today, none among his English-language pictures have come close to capturing the mystery, narrative richness and fairytale gloom of 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth.
The Shape of Water, the director’s latest, is a genuine curio – along with Get Out, its nomination for the Best Picture Oscar may well mark a thaw in the Academy’s near-pathological aversion to fantasy and horror – yet we cannot afford to passively pigeonhole it as such, for all the OTT-ness of its conceit.
It’s a truly mesmeric cinematic odyssey, a hymn to the outsider which blends del Toro’s painterly meticulousness with a novelesque ambition to produce a modern weird tale, an unabashed banquet for the senses.
Its appeal must be attributed in a large part to the contribution of Sally Hawkins, whose terrifically physical performance makes for the centrepiece of the film.
She portrays Elisa, a mute janitor at a Kennedy-era military research facility, who forms a transcendental romantic bond with the resident researchers’ latest acquisition, a beastly amphibian-human hybrid evocative of the subject of classic ’50s monster-mash Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Del Toro’s mastery of CGI, owed to a childhood infatuation with corny American sci-fi, is on full display, yet he marries this to real poignancy and grit – it’s a pulsating gothic vision, awash with period detail and adult darkness.
Ultimately, it’s a fantastical meditation on secrecy and oppression, the treatment of the creature at the hands of the vile Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) merely being the exotic tip of the iceberg. Zelda (Octavia Spencer), Elisa’s friend and colleague, is held in contempt by her racist overseers at the facility; Eliza’s neighbour (Richard Jenkins), a closeted gay artist, has resigned himself to a forlorn existence surrounded by unjudgmental felines, while Dr Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a sympathetic light among a rogue’s gallery of hateful vivisectionists, is a Soviet spy.
There’s a distinctly Freudian sexuality, though the movie addresses such relationships in as sophisticated a manner as you could hope – even after it’s taken a turn for the mature, we are still moved and tantalised by the relationship between Elisa and her scaly lover.
The thematic blatancy of the movie, which makes ‘beauties’ of its ‘beasts’, while taking to task the violence and prejudice of the society it depicts, is liable to dismay those viewers not given to flights of bewonderment and captivation (for my money, David Lynch’s The Elephant Man remains THE seminal iteration of this message), yet its paean to forbidden love is anything but hackneyed – despite the ridiculousness of its hook (yes, there are moments of good-natured comedy), the film’s tributes to the power of music and cinema will melt the stoniest of hearts.
Don’t be fooled by its veneer of childlike simplicity – here is a uniquely accomplished filmic dreamscape, which, with its steampunk-esque palette and emotional depth, makes for one of del Toro’s most riveting works to date.