‘The Shape Of Water’; Ravishing, Heart-Stopping, Kleenex Destroying
Guillermo Del Toro and I have a bit of a history; I was there for his first film, he optioned one of my books and for a brief, glorious time we worked together. The Mexican director has the seemingly Latin ability of being able to make a cinematic point within the context of a fully realised story, a proper one with great characters, a beginning, middle and end, set-pieces and moments you remember forever.
I had started to worry, somewhere between ‘Hellboy 2’ and ‘Pacific Rim’, if I’d ever see him on peak form again. Speaking of peaks, I didn’t get ‘Crimson Peak’, which seemed overly lurid and obvious – perhaps because I’ve been a little too steeped in the gothic for so long.
But along comes ‘The Shape Of Water’ (which I’d heard crassly described as ‘Amelie’ meets ‘The Creature From The Black Lagoon’) only to find that it’s very much its own beautiful beast – a swooning, fantastical fable with set-pieces of taut suspense and an emotional uppercut that left me with glasses so misted over that I nearly walked into the Leicester Square traffic afterwards.
The wonderfully expressive Sally Hawkins is a lonely mute cleaner working at an oceanic science lab and living above an old cinema in a deliriously realised 1962. She and her best friend, played by the terrific Octavia Spencer, are forced to clean up after what appears to be a torture session at the lab conducted by a cattle-prod wielding Michael Shannon at his creepiest, endlessly crunching mints and firing his terrifying stare at workmates. The lab has dredged up a ‘godless’ Amazonian gill-man and naturally want to dissect it, but only Sally senses the creature’s innate humanity and intelligence.
Not that the gill-man isn’t dangerous – but when he becomes a pawn in the cold war game then raging in ’62, it’s down to Sally and her only friend, a closeted ad illustrator, to attempt one of the worst-organised rescue missions imaginable.
What lifts this potential B-movie material is the director’s eye for detail, the presence of water in nearly every scene, the old TV and movie clips that comment on the action, the surreal moments of elation and the colour palette of tactile greens and browns. Bravely, the subject of Sally’s budding romantic feelings is treated seriously and in an adult fashion that will probably get it rated 17 in the US, 15 in the UK.
There are a couple of stonking speeches about human nature and politics, and the kind of ‘thick’ cinematography one associates with films of a much earlier era, but it’s Hawkins who silently holds the centre, endlessly watchable, surrendering her heart so openly that you start fearing for her from the first frame. There’s also a moment past the halfway mark that made me want to stand and applaud – you’ll know it when it comes – and reminded me why this director is the world’s finest builder of cinematic fables.
You’ll know from the start that this is a tragedy – it’s mentioned in the first line – so take a hankie and surrender.