LFF 2017: Guillermo del Toro casts a spell with this tale of underwater love, starring Sally Hawkins
In thrall to the Golden Age of Hollywood and as meticulously manufactured as anything that came off that legendary production line, The Shape of Water conversely shares much of its DNA with the era's B-movies, while it demonstrates a more modern sensibility when it comes to matters of sex and violence. With a love interest seemingly based on Creature from the Black Lagoon's Gill-man, this is romance Guillermo del Toro style.
The director co-writes with Vanessa Taylor, setting their fable in 1962 Baltimore and weaving Cold War paranoia and the fight for civil rights seamlessly into the action. We meet Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins) a mute living above a picture palace, sharing her evenings with starving artist pal Giles (Richard Jenkins) and spending her days cleaning a secretive government facility alongside the chatty Zelda (Octavia Spencer).
Eliza's existence is a happy one but her curiosity is piqued when a mysterious monster, referred to as 'The Asset' (regular del Toro collaborator Doug Jones), is moved into one of the labs. The creature's ability to switch between breathing mechanisms makes him a valuable weapon in the space race and, to this end, he is being watched over by Russian mole Bob Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a scientist first and spy second.
While this amphibian marvel is horrifically mistreated by the man tasked with his security, Strickland (Michael Shannon), Eliza introduces him to human kindness. She brings him eggs and plays him music, forging a connection that goes beyond simple pity; 'He doesn't know what I lack and how I am incomplete,' she movingly tells Giles as the Beauty and the Beast narrative is established.
Taylor and del Toro have penned a wonderful screenplay, making a rousing focus of a group of plucky outsiders and noting the exclusivity of the American Dream. 'You're the man of the future,' a car salesman tells Strickland, who's easily sold on his own superiority. Fear of the other is the enemy here; the common humanity of a band of 'freaks' is the force for good.
Shannon, Jenkins, Spencer and Stuhlbarg are precision-cast but it's Hawkins that will steal your heart. After her superlative work in Maudie, the actress is having quite the year. The depth of Eliza's love and longing speaks louder than any language; an impassioned plea to save the creature is vigorously conveyed. Jones, too, communicates beautifully without words, infusing this miraculous being's plight with a graceful sadness.
Best of all, the film's disparate elements gel superbly. Alexandre Desplat's simple accordion score imparts a Parisian vibe, while the frank approach to female sexuality is both apt and refreshing. Paul D Austerberry's design is impeccable and DP Dan Laustsen wraps the whole production in a toasty glow. This tale of underwater love will leave you awash with wonder as it recaptures the magic of cinema.
Screening on Tue 10, Wed 11 and Fri 13 Oct as part of the London Film Festival 2017. General release from Fri 16 Feb.