Thursday, 22 February 2018

Film Review - The Shape of Water (15)

He sees me for who I am. As I am.
The key to Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water is his own description of the film - as an 'adult fairy-tale'. 'Fairy-tale' in that it's a whimsical story reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast, and 'adult' in its unabashed eroticism and flashes of gruelling violence. It's also a homage both to '50s Cold War B-movies and to the golden age of Hollywood romance. In other words, this movie is in love with movies. If you're ready to embrace all of that, you're likely to fall in love with The Shape of Water itself.
Sally Hawkins (the adoptive bear-mother in Paddington 2) plays Eliza, a mute cleaning woman who works at a 1950s military laboratory. Her almost invisible presence there provides her with privileged access to a new delivery that lives in a huge tank of salt water. It's mysterious, scary and referred to by Strickland, the facility's ruthlessly ambitious director, as 'the asset'. But Eliza's response is more wonder than fear, sparking a connection with the creature that will put her at odds with its captors, and lead to a remarkable development in her life. 
Having finally seen this awards contender, I'm not surprised that it picked up those thirteen Oscar and twelve BAFTA nominations. Del Toro is a film-maker of vast imagination, with a remarkable and continually evolving visual style. In The Shape of Water multiple elements combine to create something truly gorgeous. The military elements have that fantastical Creature from the Black Lagoon element (del Toro cited the 1954 creature feature as his primary inspiration), while Eliza's cramped but adorably quaint apartment - two storeys above a classic '50s movie emporium - is home to her Hollywood-inspired romantic dreams. When home and work collide, these two worlds fuse into something as magical as it is bizarre (even if one creature-related moment made me wince). 
The cinematography and lighting design capture it all magnificently - from the aquatic greens of the creature and the warm Valentine reds surrounding Eliza, to the murky shadow of the espionage sequences. Some plot twists may be ugly, but on a visual level every frame is stunningly lovely. Alexandre Desplat's score is haunting and otherworldly at points, full of quirky romance at others. And the cinematic influences are abundant, as if they're all distilled through Eliza's imagination and reproduced in the world around her. (You don't have to be movie buff to enjoy this film, but if you are, get set for a treat.)
And then there are the performances. Hawkins conveys more through her physical responses to the world around her than many actors do through spoken performance. The director's advice that she channel the work of his silent-movie heroes pays off to sublime effect; Eliza is a classic romantic heroine with added sexuality and spirit, and the effect is mesmerising. But she's not carrying it alone. Richard Jenkins is touching as Eliza's artist friend Giles, another soul lost in life, while Hidden Figures' Octavia Spencer proves worthy of her Best Supporting nominations in her no-nonsense role as a fellow-janitor at the laboratory. Doug Jones rounds off this band of outsiders as the bizarre amphibian itself, his lithe performance overlaid with state-of-the-art graphics to create this feature's memorable creature. And Michael Shannon (terrific in Nocturnal Animals) is a worthy nemesis as Strickland, malevolence virtually carved into his stony face. 
If the film has a flaw it's that the plot runs too predictable a course in the latter stages, its beats a little too obvious to take you by surprise. But then this is ultimately a fairy-tale (albeit one meshed with spy thrillers and monster movies), so the romantic conventions of the genre were always going to be its guide. And when there's this much verbal and visual poetry washing about, a bit of convention is a small price to pay.
Gut Reaction: Charmed, appalled and moved, depending on the scene, and won over pretty much wholesale. And yes - I now have a big old crush on Paddington's mum.

Where Are the Women?: Hawkins is so good I need to track down her back catalogue, and Spencer is feisty support. Kudos also to co-writer Vanessa Taylor, for her sublime work on the dialogue.

Ed's Verdict: 9/10. It's proved a bit Marmite-y, but the sheer depth of movie-love on display, along with Sally's sexy-romantic luminosity, kept me enthralled. Del Toro's weird love-letter to cinema is truly wonderful.

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