Guillermo del Toro has struck gold with this beguiling mix of the harsh reality of the Cold War with fantasy or even fairy tale. It is closely related to his film Pan’s Labyrinth, which we showed as a Classic a few years ago and did the same thing with the Spanish Civil War. However, this is a love story and del Toro poses the question ‘what if the monster got the girl?’. It’s a strange question, with weird answers, but it’s one del Toro asks with beauty, delicacy and intelligence. He won the Best Direction Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe. The film has also won many awards for the technical aspects of the film, such as Sound Design, and also for Music. Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, who was so good in Hidden Figures last year, and Richard Jenkins have also won nominations for acting.
Set in the US in 1962, it is about Elisa (Hawkins), a mute orphan who can only hear and rely on sign language to communicate. She lives in an apartment above a cinema and is friends with a gay artist Giles (Jenkins) who designs commercial posters. Elisa is a janitor and always protected by her co-worker Zelda (Spencer). They’re employed to clean the corridors of a government laboratory where there are strange occurrences. Elisa’s life is changed forever when she and Zelda discover a secret classified experiment.
We understand the personalities of the characters because of the high-quality writing and the performances. Sally Hawkins is one of the most likeable working actors and every emotion of Elisa is expressed through her body language. It’s as subtle as drawing her arms close together while walking to reflect her meekness and fear. Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer also prove to be likeable and funny supports, and by the end we care for both characters.
The brilliant character actor Michael Shannon plays the nasty government administrator of the laboratory. He possesses the type of cold-faced stoniness that makes you want to hide under your seat. The benefit of a creepy, powerful villain, from whom audiences will reel as he lays down his baton to wash his hands, is that his emotional heft filters throughout the entire film. A dangerous villain ensures we care for the safety of the characters because they seem regularly endangered by grotesqueness and menace.
As with all del Toro’s movies, the true stars are the design departments, working elegantly in tandem with one another. The gunmetal blue of the ornate laboratory architecture chimes with the cleaners’ outfits. Greens are everywhere: the radioactive glow of a key lime pie, the vivid green jelly on Giles’s posters of happy families, the green gunk in the creature’s tank offset by the blood on the baton that beats him. At times, The Shape Of Water teeters on the brink of extreme kitsch. It’s the kind of fantastical story that you’d expect to be told in graphic novel or animated form, not in a live action film. Del Toro, though, is such a flamboyant and resourceful director that he makes the movie work.
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Venue: William Loveless Hall