The film is one of those rare gems which manages to transcend the neat taxonomy of genre through the sheer variety of its storytelling, all while maintaining a consistent style.
Del Toro wastes no time in informing us that what we’re about to see is a modern-day fairytale. A spellbinding opening sequences takes us through a submerged apartment as a voiceover introduces the woman we see suspended in the water as ‘the princess with no voice’. She, is Eliza (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaner working at a Roswell-like experimental lab who leads a life is governed mundane routine.
That is until she comes across the Amphibian Man, an anthropomorphic sea creature held captive by the American military for research purposes under the command of Michael Shannon’s chillingly sadistic Agent Strickland.
Soon Eliza starts to identify and forge a touching relationship with the scaly prisoner. Before long she hatches a plan to break him out of the lab with the help of protective co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and avuncular neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins).
Like del Toro’s most famous work, Pan’s Labyrinth, the narrative takes place in a fantastical version of the past. Here the setting is America during the Cold War rather than fascist Spain, and there are prominent allusions to Soviet spies (a strong Michael Stuhlbarg) and the ‘Space Race’. While these and other period details give the film an enjoyably noirish atmosphere, they are never explored in much depth – a couple of fleeting references to civil rights issues seem particularly undercooked.
Instead, del Toro seems far more interested in exploring universal themes of human behaviour and desires than any specific political or historical theme. We observe humanity at its most compassionate and tolerant in Eliza, and at its most heartless and self-serving in Strickland.
Both the leads give performances that are nothing short of remarkable. Hawkins conveys so much sensitivity and passion through gestures, glances and expressions, that you barely notice the fact that she doesn’t speak for the whole two hours (though she does sign).
And is there a better go-to villain in Hollywood than Shannon? Armed with an electrified cattle-prod and a piercing stare, even his most seemingly innocuous remarks are packaged as deeply sinister threats.
Strickland’s simmering brutality eventually boils over to set up a terrifically dread-filled final act in which Elisa and her amphibian lover are hunted down. A quite literal deus ex machina at the end could leave us feeling a little cheated, but it’s a conclusion that the film has earned by making us so invested in these characters. And besides, it has already won us over long, long before the last scene.
|What||The Shape of Water film review|
|Where||Various Locations | MAP|
16 Feb 18 – 16 Feb 19, TIMES VARY
|Price||£ determined by cinema|
|Website||Click here for more information|