“I dragged that filthy thing out of the river muck in South America all the way here. And along the way we didn't get to like each other much.” Strickland
I’ve long been a fan of Guillermo del Toro.
I’ve long admired his unique style, that can just as easily propel us to a larger than life series of action set pieces in a giant robot vs giant monster movie in Pacific Rim, yet also he can take us on quirky, offbeat adventures in a superhero movie like Hellboy and pile on the tension in a full-on horror movie like Mimic. But then, there are the fantastic tone poems that have an entirely different appeal, like the fairy tale setting of Pan’s Labyrinth and beautifully gothic Crimson Peak. Even his early works Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone hinted broadly at a skilful mastery, not only of a specific genre or genres – but of the art of cinema itself. The man is an artist with a script for paint and a camera for a brush.
I was curious about The Shape of Water, particularly what del Toro would bring to the screen this time. I kept away from all spoilers, apart from a vague notion that it was an unusual love story concerning a humanoid fish-man. Just with that small synopsis alone, comparisons with Universal Studios’ classic Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) are inevitable and wholly justified. But more of that in just a minute.
The setting is a secret research facility in Baltimore. The year is 1962. Working at the bottom of the food chain in this facility, practically unseen by the other employees, scientists, security and so forth, are the cleaning crew. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a cleaner. She lives in an apartment above an old-fashioned picture palace style cinema, her only friends are her neighbour, a commercial artist played by Richard Jenkins. (Jenkins has one of those familiar character actor faces that keep popping up in films but you can never quite put your finger on what you remember him best for – thanks to the internet, I can confirm that in my case, it’s his role as the reporter married to Veronica Cartwright in Witches of Eastwick.)
Her other friend is fellow cleaner, Zelda (Octavia Spencer, who practically stole the show in last year’s Hidden Figures). Elisa is also completely mute, unable to utter a single sound due to some scarring on the sides of her neck.
Into the facility comes a top-secret research project, sealed in a steel box before being transferred into a larger open topped water filled tank. Her curiosity aroused, Elisa checks out the box and is startled as a webbed hand slams the reinforced glass on the lid.
The following night, cleaning the lab, she encounters the amphibian and starts to befriend him, which progresses to a relationship forming.
The amphibian is strikingly similar in build and appearance to the Gill-Man of Creature from the Black Lagoon, but then I suppose there’s not much scope for putting fins on a humanoid without a degree of repetition. But when the story of how the amphibian was caught in South America is told, if that narrative was ever filmed as a prequel, it would literally BE The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The Shape of Water plays very well as a sequel of sorts and, it has to be said, is a far better film than the actual sequel to the fifties movie, The Revenge of the Creature. Colour wise, there’s also a remarkable resemblance to the equally amphibious Abe Sapien in del Toro’s Hellboy films. I guess it’s unsurprising that both Abe Sapien and the amphibian were played by the same actor, Doug Jones.
The amphibian is in the care of Strickland, a security officer who tortures his prisoner for no apparent reason, with sadistic glee, and Hoffsteddler, a scientist conducting research, but is more sympathetic to the amphibian’s suffering at the hands of Strickland and his electric cattle prod.
Not to put too much of a spoiler on it, the military want to vivisect the amphibian, the Soviets are just concerned that the Americans learn nothing, while Elisa falls deeper in love with her strange suitor as time runs out.
It’s as perfect a film as del Toro has delivered to date, with a haunting musical score by Alexandre Desplat that I had to add to my collection as soon as I heard it. Striking cinematography with a lush colour palette that jumps off the screen in a way that films like Hugo and Life of Pi did. That gorgeous Technicolor look that was widely used back in the early sixties, in tune with the era the film is set. When I watch a colour film, I like to see bright, vibrant colours rather than the dull, washed out look favoured by many directors today.
All in all, guys, this one needs to be checked out – it’s a visual treat and despite a somewhat predictable outcome, it’s a strong story that’s well told. I’m hoping the Oscars give it some duly deserved recognition next week.
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