You know it’s a fairytale when a woman falls in love with an amphibious creature. You know it’s a fairytale from Guillermo del Toro when the lyrical love story has flashes of finger-biting violence and the woman pleases herself in the bath. As whimsical as Amelie and as off-kilter as any Tim Burton film, it’s a gorgeously shot, playfully piquant movie with a thrumming undertow of threat and physicality: The Shape of Water is shaping up to be the most Oscar-nominated movie of 2018.
In the 1960s, Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky, Made in Dagenham) is a mute young woman who works as a cleaner in a secretive underground research lab. Elisa’s on duty when a new asset is delivered for testing: curious, she can’t resist tapping the tank – only to find a Man from Atlantis amphibian within. He’s a curio to others, but Elisa’s unspoken bond with the creature is immediate. So when vivisection is announced, she plans to steal the creature away. But the dangerously psychotic military agent Michael Shannon will kill them both if he can - if the Russians don’t do it first.
Guillermo del Toro plunges you into The Shape of Water with consummate skill. Burnished cinematography conjures a palpable sense of labyrinthine lostness and lurking danger, a period-palette of shadows and gold. The lovely mellifluous soundtrack from French composer Alexandre Desplat is almost ever-present, as if we’re floating in it - as indeed we seem to be with the main theme, cleverly played as if through water.
The music evokes Amelie; the story suggests any Jean-Pierre Jeunet movie; and del Toro largely makes it his own in marshalling the memories of other films, sometimes his own (Pan’s Labyrinth for one) and the creature-features of the past (Creature from the Black Lagoon). So The Shape of Water doesn’t feel as original as you’d expect. But for a director who loves to explore physicality and desire, his fingerprints are all over it.
Sally Hawkins’ malleable face works wonders, innocent, funny and spirited – you can see why del Toro asked her to study the expressions of silent stars like Buster Keaton and Stan Laurel. Her expressiveness is searing as she mimes to her friend Giles (Richard Jenkins) why she needs his help to steal the creature – years of loneliness and longing wringing out of her. It’s an exhilarating moment.
So too is Elisa’s daring to face down and outwit Michael Shannon’s thuggish bigot, who sees the cleaner as a 'piss-wiper' and takes her 'f-you' sign-language as a thank you. Hawkins’ conveys Elisa’s horror, defiance and joy perfectly.
But in relying on the ‘instant connection’ of girl and creature, riffing on unspoken communication, the piquancy of the emotional bond feels rushed and contrived. And while Doug Jones, as the creature, is physically well-rendered, the wide-eyed guppy-fish gaucheness is too easy; and the implied flashes of animalesque appetites aren’t enough to yield complexity. del Toro’s boundary-push – and being him, he must – is the sexualising of the romance.
Hawkins bares all, emotionally and physically, the latter somewhat at odds with the implied female empowerment. The longing for connection, in friendship and love, is the recurrent motif. A film, then, with a lush romantic sweep, dreamlike, haunting and superbly cinematic.
The Shape of Water is a sweet, childlike fantasy; a romance, a comedy, a thriller and, at one point, almost a musical. Not many films can achieve that and some audiences will rightly be wooed by its appeal. With it comes the modern sensibility - the sexuality, the shot-through-the-face moments which some might wish weren’t there. But then it wouldn’t be a Guillermo del Toro movie. Richly immersive and beautifully crafted, it’s a film about the heart within us all – and the blood that beats within it.