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Director: Guillermo del Toro

Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor

Starring: Sally HawkinsOctavia SpencerMichael Shannon 

Review: David Stephens

Guillermo del Toro is a fantasist. That’s not meant in a derogatory way, or indicating a scumbag-politician-telling-lies-to-accumulate-power form of delusion. It’s the way he celebrates the worlds of fantasy (mostly of the dark variety) in all of his works. It started with his wonderfully offbeat take on vampirism in “Cronos” (1993), before crossing over to blockbuster territory with the “Hellboy” movies and “Pacific Rim”. Not to mention his TV work like “The Strain” series and the animated “Trollhunters”. Perhaps the most accomplished and successful way that he melded fantasy and cruel reality was with the haunting and heart-breaking “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006). A phenomenal film that married fairy-tales with the violence of 1940’s Spain, as the young stepdaughter of a sadistic army officer escapes into a fantasy world. To all intents and purposes “The Shape of Water” is the natural progression of that theme. Only this time, del Toro focuses on his beloved monster movies as oppose to fairy-tales, and the paranoia of 1960’s America is the real villain of the plot. Given an infuriating release delay in the UK (mostly due to award season shenanigans and politics), it’s finally showing in cinemas across the country. YGROY takes a deep breath and dives into this most romantic of creature features…

Starting with a wonderfully evocative journey into a submerged apartment, we’re introduced to Elisa Esposito (a stellar turn by UK actress Sally Hawkins), a mute woman who was abandoned at birth with damaged vocal chords, she can only communicate with sign language. She lives in an apartment over the top of a cinema and leads an unremarkable life, with her daily routine (boiling an egg and engaging in some self-loving) timed to the exact minute. Her only real friends are her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), and her colleague from work Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Elisa works as a night-shift cleaner at a secret government laboratory in Baltimore, and is an observer as a strange water-filled container is brought into the facility by the stern Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). She soon discovers that the imprisoned “Asset” (as the Gill-man is only ever called) is a man-like amphibian (played masterfully by perennial monster actor Doug Jones), who is destined to be studied and abused by the government officials. Finding that she is able to communicate and develop feelings for this “monster”, Elisa plots to free the tortured being. But Strickland won’t be denied of his chance to achieve his own dreams so easily…

What we have here is a Disney film for adults or “E.T.” for incurable romantics. (NB: And we’re not throwing shade at Disney/Pixar movies, as everybody from the age of 3 to 99 enjoys the majority of their output recently… but you get the idea). And it is to be perfectly frank… simply glorious. It’s an old-fashioned love-story that just happens to have an aquatic humanoid monster as the dashing prince, and a mute cleaner as Cinderella. If it wasn’t for the blood and sexuality (which are perfectly appropriate in context), this would be a darker reimagining of “Splash” or a mature sequel to “Creature from The Black Lagoon”. Note to Hollywood, you can cancel that intended remake now.

The plot is set in 1962 America with the US and Russia engaged in a dangerous cold war, and the military is at its most influential. But the film is basically a romanticised and stylish version of that era. It still carries all of the paraphernalia and lifestyle of the 1950’s, with casual bigotry and the pursuit of the “American Dream” still being very much the order of the day. Strickland is portrayed as the worst example of that time; buttoned-up and repressed, engaging in joyless/speech-free sex with his wife, having the 2-child nuclear family, and lusting after a new teal-coloured Cadillac. As his moral decay sets in, it’s cleverly reflected in some physical and mental traits. By contrast, Elisa, Giles, Zelda, and (obviously) the Amphibian Man, are all “outsiders” and on the fringes of society for various unfair reasons. But they have far more humanity and love within them when compared to Strickland and the other characters.

The strength of the characterisation and atmosphere is bolstered by a lovely visual style. The neon-lit streets jostle with the German-expressionism of the laboratory sets, and the muted (but warm) colour schemes in the homes. There’s also some great sly humour; Giles’s fridge rammed full of crappy pies, Zelda’s observation that the “greatest minds in America” can’t seem to pee straight, or the brilliantly wry moment where Strickland’s affection-free humping merges into the sound that the generators make in the laboratory. There are a couple of decidedly icky moments with blood and violence, but don’t expect a gore-fest, as this is a much more gentle and romantic movie than that.

As far as performances go… yes, Hawkins is that damned good. In a wordless role, she exudes a luminescence and presence that makes it hard to think of any other working actress that could achieve the same qualities. Just watch the silent-but-impassioned speech that she gives to Giles in order for him to help her. But every other cast member is also perfect in their roles as well. Shannon couldn’t be better as the loathsome Strickland, Jenkins continues to steal scenes in every film he’s been in (see “Bone Tomahawk”), and Spencer is tremendously endearing and important. Jones is also brilliant as Amphibian Man, and plays him differently to Abe Sapien in the “Hellboy” films, with a more “simian” and heroically classic feel to him. It says a lot that a needlessly violent act by him is almost immediately forgiven by a prime character as being understandable.

And so there we have it. There are going to be people that it doesn’t work for. You have to buy into del Toro’s romantic vision and imagination for it to hit home. It may also be a tad overlong for the narrative and a couple of details feel a bit odd (Why does a canal have to be used? There must be a shoreline somewhere surely). But if you’re looking for realism, this isn’t the place to do that and it shouldn’t be overanalysed. This still feels pretty much perfect and that’s reflected in our rating below.

Happily, although it’s never going to make box-office history, the recognition that it’s achieved in recent awards (NB: Best Director from BAFTA as we type this) and the majority of genre fans themselves, is pretty satisfying. In essence, not only is it pure homage to those classic monster movies, but it’s an ode of love to the “outsiders” of the world, something which many horror fans have responded to. As “Crimson Peak” felt something of a disappointment, that makes del Toro’s accomplishment here all the sweeter. Totally worthy of the praise it’s received. “Water” delight.

Disney for grown-ups and a strangely heart-warming modern fairy-tale. It’s a culmination and the perfect melding of all of Guillermo del Toro’s favourite themes. Hawkins totally deserves all the plaudits and nominations, but the supporting cast is absolutely brilliant as well. It’s stretching to call it “horror” despite a couple of grim scenes, but it still celebrates the genre. It’s the perfect date movie for those who embrace the dark side.
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