Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Talent: Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins. Octavia Spencer
Released: 16 February
After his lavish potboiler Crimson Peak (2015) turned out to be something of a curate’s egg, one would be forgiven for approaching Guillermo Del Toro’s latest romantic fantasy with measured expectations. The good news is that The Shape of Water is not only his most affecting film since Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), it’s also the most carefully focused and impeccably crafted of his career.
A kind of sub-aquatic Beauty and the Beast fable, The Shape of Water centres on Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a lonely mute woman who takes a janitor’s job at – but of course – a sinister government facility. There, she encounters, and falls in love with, a captive humanoid sea monster (played by Doug Jones and a tonne of photorealistic special effects). As romance blossoms, Elisa’s closest ally is her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer).
The Shape of Water has landed 13 Oscar nominations and it’s easy to see why. It is exquisitely realised – the work of a craftsman in full command of his medium. The ‘horror’ trappings of Del Toro’s work have occasionally made it easy to overlook how much he draws on vintage Hollywood (Crimson Peak, for instance, was a 1940s ‘woman’s picture’ as much as a ‘haunted house’ movie). The Shape of Water makes this debt clear – you might call it Douglas Sirk’s Creature from the Black Lagoon.
If the lustrous smoothness of has a drawback, it’s just that: the film is smooth to the point that its obsessive charge sometimes feels tamped down in the interests of respectability. Fortunately, Hawkins’ hyper-sensitive performance stays tensile throughout. Like Holly Hunter in The Piano, she mines not only the pathos but also the unexpected eroticism of muteness. It’s essentially a silent performance, as alluringly out-of-time as the film’s amphibious hero – and all the better for it.
Words: David Turpin