With excellent leading performances, a modern twist on some classic cinema and a beautifully realized 1950s setting, The Shape of Water might just take your breath away.
Guillermo del Toro was one of many directors who tried for years to remake the classic Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954), and it seems that eventually the only way to do it for him (and co-writer Vanessa Taylor) was to keep the ‘Gill-man’ and change almost everything else. And so, therefore, this beautiful, seriously visionary and surprisingly awards-friendly movie doesn’t feature a monster that falls hopelessly in love with our heroine but a woman who falls hopelessly in love with a gorgeous beast. And one look at him and you might well too.
In a wonderfully-realised 1950s we meet the mute Elisa Esposito (English actress Sally Hawkins, a long way from the Paddington films), who has a rich, funny and erotic fantasy life from the word go, right down to dreams that recall darkly magical moments in del Toro’s previous pics, particularly Pan’s Labyrinth. Elisa’s only friends are her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins as a very del Toro character who’s a lovelorn artist, film buff and chronic TV watcher) and longtime workmate Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spender), who translates her sign language and worries about her.
Elisa and Zelda work night shift at a top-secret Baltimore research facility with rather poor security, and when Elisa catches a glimpse of the latest acquisition (an amphibious man, or maybe god, caught in South America in a direct reference to the original Creature), she’s fascinated and sneaks back to spend time with him, bringing boiled eggs, jazz records and no fear.
He’s a fabulous creation played by the oh-so-skinny Doug Jones (notable as the body of Abe Sapien in del Toro’s Hellboy), complete with cat-like/reptilian eyes, luminous blue colourings and vocalisations supplied by Guillermo himself. This amphibian is regularly tortured by the man who captured him, Colonel Richard Strickland, whom Michael Shannon (who else?) plays as a self-righteous, hate-filled, sexually perverse, casually racist, candy-chomping villain who’s far more of a monster than the amphibian man could ever be.
Strickland cannot be allowed to hurt him any longer, and Elisa hits upon a plan to rescue him, even while she finds it hard to stop swooning because, for the first time, she’s found someone or something who understands and adores her ‘otherness’.
Shannon, Jenkins, Spencer and Michael Stuhlbarg (as Dr. Robert Hoffstetler) all turn in fine work here, but this is still all about Jones (whose graceful physical playing is only slightly improved by FX) and Hawkins, whom del Toro wanted for from the very beginning. We’ve never seen her like this before, and it’s a performance that truly takes your breath away.
Rated MA. The Shape of Water is in cinemas now