The Shape of Water film review *****

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The Shape of Water, 26th February 2018

I have to confess I wasn’t that interested in seeing The Shape of Water, (I am pleased with my little conceptual joke here). The trailers suggested this was likely in a similar vein to Guillermo Del Toro’s previous gothic horror/romance/fantasy films: lovely to look at but tedious to watch. Yet the reviews were persuasive, Sally Hawkins is a tip-top favourite of mine and I was getting into the swing of seeing all the Oscar nominated films in the manner of a sad armchair critic.

So off I went. Dear reader, I was bewitched. This is not, on the face of it, a complicated fable, but it has a lot to say. Sally Hawkins plays Eliza Esposito, an orphan who has not spoken since being found on a riverbank with scars on her throat. She works as a cleaner at Occam, an aerospace military research facility in Cold War America. Our symbolic “monster”, a merman/amphibian of sorts, direct from the Amazon, arrives. So far, so Del Toro. Class A psycho nutjob, Strickland, played with splenetic relish by the versatile Michael Shannon, is tasked with looking after the creature, which he does, cruelly. Restless scientist Hofstetler, (an austere Michael Stuhlbarg), objects, but, as a Russian spy, he has ulterior motives. Eliza, through that tried and trusted combination of eggs and music, falls in love with the creature and hatches a plan to release him, roping in kindly, gay, commercial artist neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) and voluble colleague Zelda (another engaging performance from Octavia Hill). You can guess the rest.

Good triumphs over evil, naturally and there is thrill, if not suspense, in the break-out. This is a timeless story. Beauty and the Beast, set against a world of US-Soviet paranoia. You can feel the references to other classic films, even if, like me, you don’t know what they are. There is an echo of the silent movie greats as well as a nod to the monster movies of the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed Eliza and Giles actually live above a cinema the Orpheum (courtesy of Toronto, as so many of the exterior shots are). It is chock-full of repeated motifs and symbols. Mr Del Toro has a hand in the writing, but has wisely co-opted Vanessa Taylor, who wrote some of the early episodes of Game of Thrones. It shows. There is a hard-edged realism which punctures the fantasy and lends structure to the story.

Unsurprisingly the film looks exquisite with blues and greens predominating and all sorts of arresting images wrung from Mr Del Toro’s box of tricks. Water, water, everywhere. Costumes from Luis Sequeira, Paul Austerberry’s designs, Alexandre Desplat’s inventive score and, especially, Dan Lausten’s cinematography, all coalesce to bring the story to life. Frankly though none of this can work if the two, effectively wordless, performances of the two leads don’t convince. Getting zipped in to a merman/amphibian suit for hours on end and trying to convey emotion through face and body movement alone is a job few can master. Just as well Mr Del Toro has his long time “monster” collaborator, Doug Jones, on hand.

Now it doesn’t take a genius to work out that Sally Hawkins is a gifted actress. I saw her first in 2000 in a pair of Shakespeare productions at the Open Air Theatre. was struck by her performances in the TV adaptions of Tipping the Velvet, Fingersmith and Persuasion, by her collaborations with Mike Leigh and, most impressively, by her performance alongside Rafe Spall in Nick Payne’s Constellations. The two of them turned that into a much better play than it really was, and it was pretty good to start with. Here, as Eliza, she is transcendent. I don’t care how grizzled and cynical you are, this is a love story you should buy into.

So there you have it. I am fortunate to have had the time to see all the Oscar nominated best films, bar Call Me By Your Name. I enjoyed all of them, but only this, Phantom Thread and Three Billboards … really seemed to me to harness the power of cinema. Films where you know the direction of travel or where the camera is just pointed at the action can be satisfying but what I crave is uncertainty and surprise. And insight into the human condition. I see the other films I really liked last year would fail to make the grade because they are either a) “foreign”, b) tiny, in budget, not scope, c) actually from the prior year or d) maybe a bit too full on. I would have shoved Mother!, Detroit and The Florida Project into the list if I where in charge. Mind you, all pointless since Three Billboards … is, unarguably, the best of the chosen bunch but, to my immense surprise, The Shape of Water, runs it close.

I should have realised. Never underestimate a fat bloke born in 1964 (or 1963) with a terrible beard and ill-kempt hair who spends too much time locked in his imagination.

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