The Shape of Water seems an apt title to premiere at Venice, and Guillermo del Toro’s latest gothic, fairytale fantasy is of a piece with earlier work such as The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth in that it uses a naif’s point of view to find human connections amid the monstrosities of war.
Here, the war is the Cold War gripping 50s America, a land of government agents in hats, Russian spies in back rooms and musicals on the TV. Sally Hawkins plays a mute called Elisa who lives in the sort of rickety, snickers rooms only characters in Tim Burton or Jean-Pierre Jeunet films inhabit, above a picture palace called the Orpheum.
She works in a top secret Government facility, as a cleaner. But her interest is piqued when a dangerous “asset” is brought in one day, a creature in a tank that Michael Shannon’s agent Strickland begins to torture.
Of course, Elisa and the Creature (the “Thing”, as Strickland calls him, ramping up the B-movie references) strike up a friendship over hard boiled eggs and music played on her portable dansette. She overcomes her muteness and he overcomes his, well, that fact that he’s a fish.
It’s all twee and quirky, with shades of everything including Woody Allen-style nostalgia and musical fantasy (Sally, herself a Woody alumna of Cassandra’s Dream and Blue Jasmine, reminded me of Samantha Morton’s turn in Sweet and Lowdown), but there’s some very fine scripting and set pieces and superb production designs.
It has oomph and heart and is in love with cinema as much as love itself – a very romantic tale, as tender and strange as it is kooky, all about hidden desires, both sexual and political, as well as the myths and legends in the stories we tell. I found it charming and brilliant in parts – the instinctive, fascinating, ethereal performer Sally is certainly as you’ve never seen her before, naked and masturbating and then having sex with a bloke in a ropey B-movie fish costume. Yet it’s also cloying and silly in other moments, like a naughty kid. This is ultimately uniquely of the director’s vision so we give it the benefit of any personal doubts, a film that refuses to be nailed down or contained, just like the shape of water itself.
The Shape of Water will play at the BFI London Film Festival as the American Airlines Gala