Saturday, 24 February 2018

Del Toro's Shape of Water is the shape of magic

It’s rather amusing to consider that the founders of the Academy Awards, which will be handed out this year in LA on 4 March, would probably never have imagined that the film with the most nominations this year would include scenes of female masturbation and human/monster sex.

Ninety years after the first gold statuettes were handed out, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is up for 13 gongs. Though Dunkirk has eight nominations, its main competition in the really big categories is Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, with seven overall.

But let’s set that aside for the moment.

The plot of The Shape of Water is, on the surface of it, very simple.

Mute cleaner Elisa Esposito works at a secret US government facility in Baltimore in 1962. Her best friends are her neighbour Giles, a late-middle aged illustrator who has (probably) been forced out of contracted work because he’s gay, and a fellow cleaner, Zelda, a black woman with a problematic husband, who defends Elisa against bullying colleagues.

But Elisa dreams of something beyond mopping the labs and, when a strange water creature – The Asset – is brought to the facility in the hope that it will help the US side of the Cold War space race, she is the first person to realise that the monster is not … well, quite the monster he initially seems.

However, just as their relationship is developing, it becomes clear that the brutal Colonel Richard Strickland and the US military want to vivisect the creature.

In terms of this film, the words ‘fairy tale’ have been mentioned plenty of times, And it’s absolutely true. Because del Toro has created something that is just that – which is precisely why it is so powerful.

Some have claimed that the plot is simplistic – fairy tale plots are.

Some have suggested that the characters are not fully developed – just as in fairy tales.

Fairy tales are simple and full of ciphers. And they stay with us – just like folklore and mythology – down the generations.

The Shape of Water is full of shallow characters – but only if you are not willing or able to look slightly deeper. Even Strickland has a lot more to say to us if we listen properly (further clues here would represent spoilers).

Indeed, this is an extraordinarily intellectually complex film: simple only on the surface: if you’re prepared to look deeper, then it has many, many rewards.

It is also a generous emotional experience – never lapsing into lazy sentimentality – with a number of moments of utter joy. And those include Elisa using sign language to tell Strickland to ‘fuck you’, which he can only guess at in utter frustration: the look on her face is simply sublime.

Sally Hawkins as Elisa is just wonderful – can’t she and Frances McDormand share the best actress Oscar this year? Indeed, as gutsy, feisty women, they make a wonderful pair of contrasting characters. Hawkins conveys such a purity and yet such a hunger, such a passion and such a moral strength – and all without speaking.

Ophelia Spencer as Zelda is wonderful. Michael Shannon as Strickland is really nasty – yet also has those depths that should make us think – while Michael Stuhlbarg as one of the scientists is equally excellent.

Doug Jones – the amphibian Abe Sapien in both del Toro Hellboy movies – does wonders in the fish skin, making the ‘monster’ a believable yet utterly strange being, while Richard Jenkins as Giles (justifiably up for a supporting actor Oscar) really does turn in the performance of his career.

The design is almost pure graphic novel, with a gorgeous colour palette of blue-greens and a retro sense of the future that really helps draw you in. 

Alexandre Desplat’s score is one of the few I will bother to buy to listen to. Eerie – and, in this centenary of Debussy’s death – it has the shimmering ‘watery’ quality of some of that composer’s watery-themed works.

At the top of this review, I mentioned the bath time masturbation scenes: they come into their own when you realise that they ensure that Elisa cannot be viewed as a naive, ‘disabled’ victim and therefore exploited – indeed, most of the film’s strength comes because she is the absolute opposite of that: it’s her incredible strength that inspires the others around her.

There are so many themes here: loneliness; the sense of being ‘apart’ – not part of society’s most accepted class/es. There are environmental themes too and political ones. And one of the most telling points is that, when the ‘monster and Elisa come together, it feels proper and apt and tender and convincing – just as such things have in myth down the centuries.

So, simple on the surface perhaps. But dip below that surface and you’ll see why del Toro’s latest work might well be his very best yet. This is cinematic magic. Go and catch it.

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