Sunday 18 February 2018

The Shape Of Water

Gill Merman Del Toro

The Shape Of Water
2017 USA Directed by Guillermo del Toro
2018 UK cinema release print.

Well there you go then. Only just over halfway through February and we already have a new movie release that absolutely embodies the spirit of cinema and is exactly what the art form is all about.

It would be fair to say I’ve found director Guillermo del Toro a little hit and miss over the years but, in all honesty, much more with the movie speedometer pointing towards ‘hit’ than at the other end of the scale. I am still a bit reluctant to embrace both of his enormously creative works Kronos and Pan’s Labyrinth, for example... I’m sorry, they just left me cold. However, I absolutely loved the two Hellboy movies he did (especially the second one which, it seemed to me, felt like it had less studio interference) and Mimic, Pacific Rim (reviewed here) and Crimson Peak (reviewed here) were all films I could get behind to some extent.

When I saw the trailer for The Shape Of Water featuring Sally Hawkins, who I think is one of the more engaging and wondrous British actresses of recent years, it looked like a movie which would, at the very least, once again enrich an audience’s cinematic experience with a beautifully crafted, heavily stylised piece of art and... yeah... dead right it does.

It also looked like it was taking inspiration from one of my all time favourite monster movies of the 1950s and, yeah, it does that  too.

The film is set in 1962 and details the story of a mute cleaning lady called Elisa, played by Sally Hawkins, who works with a group of workers, including her friend Zelda (played wonderfully by Octavia Spencer), that look after the cleaning duties for a top secret, government research facility. One day they have a new ‘asset’ brought to the facility... an amphibian man played by Doug Jones (who played a very similar character for this director in the Hellboy films, of course). The creature has been captured in a river in South America (another reference to the obviously inspiration of the character, which I’ll get to in a minute) and is treated cruelly as a science project (or worse) by the majority of the scientists at the facility and, especially, by the accompanying security chief Strickland. Strickland, played with the usual villanous relish by Michael Shannon, is the real monster of this film which, actually, is in no way a horror film but certainly has moments of dark terror to be found in both Shannon’s role and in the ‘cold war’ paranoia surrounding the only kindly scientist, played by Michael Stuhlbarg.

However, Elise slowly falls in love and creates a bond with the creature and, when she finds that Strickland has scheduled its termination and vivisection, she enlists the aid of her commercial artist friend Giles (played so poignantly by Richard Jenkins) and the two of them, including a couple of unexpected allies, plot to kidnap and ultimately free the creature. And that’s about as much I want to tell you of the story arc because, well... you’ll surely want to discover that for yourself.

The film starts of strongly with the allusions to Elisa’s unknown start in life and a wonderful homage to cinema and great TV of days gone by (both visually and on the soundtrack). The beauty and charm of Elisa’s daily routine, where she wakes up in her room above the Orpheum cinema and draws a bath before furiously masturbating in the tub prior to going to work, is full of detail and, much like a lot of past cinematic classics, almost threatens to overwhelm the senses as you watch and let the world wash over you in all its glory.

As you would expect from a director of this calibre, it’s not just the incredible talent he calls on which makes the film into a little masterpiece of the visual arts. The set and shot design is superb and he manipulates some nice, often aquatically themed colour palettes to tell his story... a tale filled with a lot of charm and heart (which is something which I found lacking in Pan’s Labyrinth, to be honest). He also does some wonderful stuff with the sound design too. For instance, in a scene where Michael Shannon’s character is roughly having sex with his wife, the background sound of the springs and rhythm of the bed keep going through to the next scene transition and become the ambient noise of the next environment... which I found quite phenomenal and applause worthy, to be honest.

There’s another little moment in the film later where the lighting in a room where Elisa and the Creature are eating dinner suddenly goes fully into an unnatural state in that the whole room dims to black except Elise, in a spotlight, as something truly touching is about to happen... and then the film goes completely sideways into a brilliant sequence which I really can’t spoil here but... it was absolutely not what I was expecting to happen and it involves a monochromatic sequence of 1930s style spectacle.

The creature itself, of course... and the romance with the main protagonist... is clearly inspired by the classic ‘creature feature’ Creature From The Black Lagoon (which I reviewed here) and the whole film, which does include sex sequences and (yay!) Sally Hawkins in a state of undress, seems like the director had watched that film and become inspired by that moment where the gill man is swimming beneath Julie Adams and falls for her. And, as it turns out, from what I understand now that I read a few lines from the director about the movie from other sources after seeing this... that’s pretty much the case. This film is very much a projection of Creature From The Black Lagoon (although it technically bears a little more resemblance in setting, perhaps, to the first of the two sequels, Revenge Of The Creature) and a look at where that relationship could have gone if 1950s cinema had been perhaps a little more relaxed in what it was allowed to depict, story wise, at the time.

All of this is accompanied by a score composed by the great Alexandre Desplat (although there are a lot of sequences, also, where source music from various eras relateable to the period and its direct history are utilised) and, while its probably not one of his best, it is a nice score and I’m hoping a closer listen (the CD has been sitting in the corner of the room for the last week or two, still in shrink wrap) will make clear why it’s been given an Oscar nomination. It’s nice stuff including a lot of whistling which appropriately helps to build the world as seen through the eyes of Elisa.

The film is both romantic and passionate in its portrayal of the beauty of this world but also pushes the limits in such a fantasy in that it doesn’t shy away from going to some really dark places. There are some things which are tough to watch but the director and his cast manage to pull it off so deftly that it never feels like the two opposing emotional styles are threatening to tear the piece apart and I feel del Toro is much more adept at the art of keeping things in balance than he was, maybe, at the start of his career. Like any other artist, he is a creator who grows better and more skilled as he gains more experience at the helm of these amazing worlds he creates.

The denouement of the movie features something happening which I was half expecting would be made more of, when the story first reveals the scars around Elisa’s neck which are held accountable for her inability to speak. However, rather than being a disappointing revelation of something which some people will also, I’m sure, find a little obvious... it’s just where I personally felt the movie needed to go and I was really happy the writers and director did this thing, while we hear Richard Jenkins recite a piece of poetry on the voice-over narrative which is obviously the inspiration for the title of the film.

And that’s more or less all I want to say about The Shape Of Water. Like Elisa, I have no more words to describe the pleasures and wonders of the environment in which this central character lives her life but I do have the words to recommend this to anyone who answers to the somewhat dubious title of cinephile or even the more casual watchers and lovers of the cinematic form such as myself. The Shape Of Water is another gift from Guillermo del Toro and it’s a present which I know I will certainly be unwrapping again for myself when the Blu Ray gets a release. It’s definitely something which cries out to be caught on the big screen of your local cinema so, my advice would be to swim to this one as soon as you can.

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