Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg
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Any movie by Guillermo del Toro is always an exciting prospect. Any movie starring Sally Hawkins is always a must-see. The thought of the two working together, then, promises to be a delight – and The Shape of Water doesn’t disappoint.
It might seem strange to call a movie about a fish monster a delight, but that’s before you’ve seen this particular aquatic specimen in action. Part-sci-fi, part-fantasy and all heart, it tells the story of a cleaner, Elisa, who works at a mysterious government facility at the height of the Cold War. So when a secret creature comes in that the Americans are keen to keep from the Soviets, the worse thing anyone could do is start a relationship with it. There are no points for guessing what happens – but it’s endlessly rewarding to see how unexpectedly charming it is.
Hawkins, whose character is mute, is marvellous, conveying so much through her movingly physical performance. Del Toro wrote the film with her in mind, and her vulnerable physicality is a perfect match for the role, as the director’s joyous fairytale swings from lunchtime feeding (eggs quietly left by the side of a tank for a scaly hand to fetch) to watching tap-dancing on the telly.
Doug Jones – a veteran of del Toro’s costumed creations – slips into his part with a disarming amount of charisma, playing his B-movie swamp thing like he’s a natural born heartthrob. He’s at once terrifying and tragic, creepy and cute, a paradox only made possible by the humans he’s placed next to.
Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer are superbly sincere as Elisa’s melancholic flatmate and supportive colleague, supported by the chameleonic Michael Stuhlbarg as government scientist Strickland. Each one is an outsider in one way or another. Firmly on the inside, Michael Shannon is on scene-stealing form as the cruel, uptight US security man tasked with protecting the asset from enemy eyes. What emerges is a sweet story of those on the fringes of society joining together in the face of intolerance, a cry for empathy and connection that crosses barriers and backgrounds. Even Shannon’s villain carries enough nuance to allow for some compassion.
From a watery opening scene of another kind altogether, it’s clear that this an adult movie that’s sexually aware and socially conscious. But while you might expect colourful action or supernaturally tinged horror from the Pan’s Labyrinth director, del Toro keeps things cute without dwelling on nasty details – the period detail is meticulous, yet rings with a fairytale quality that renders the whole thing timeless, like a faded movie matinee. Accompanied by Alexandre Desplat’s rippling score, the result is an unabashedly old-school Hollywood romance, which just so happens to have a gigantic fish monster in – a movie so gorgeously swooning, and overflowing with genuine, gushing emotion, that you might as well be watching Fred and Ginger in their heyday.