The Shape of Water (2017)

Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Nick Searcy, Michael Stuhlbarg

Directed by: Guillermo del Toro

Rating: 1 2 3 4 and a half

So Ian and I have this game we play on long car journeys where you have to put together opposite but complementary songs that together tell a complete story. So for example 'Away' by the Bolshoi is the dark depressive opposite to David Essex's sweetly humble 'If I Could', while ‘Diamonds and Rust' by Judas Priest (or Joan Baez if you prefer it without a proper chorus) is the other side of 'Say Hello, Wave Goodbye' by Soft Cell. Yeah, it's a niche game.

Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones in Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water

In the same way, The Shape of Water can be seen as the other side of Guillermo del Toro's comic book hit Hellboy. Both are otherworldly tales of strange beautiful creatures and cruel government agencies, accidental heroes and unlikely lovers. Yet, set in early 1960s aspic and littered with kitsch references, the former reveals the tender human side that gets lost in the fun and fury of the latter, as light and whimsical as Delicatessen or Amelie (but not nearly as creepy – I really didn't like Amelie).

Elisa (Sally Hawkins) lives above a cinema in Baltimore (the city of Edgar Allan Poe and John Waters, so already we're dipping our toes in strange waves). By night she works nights as a cleaner at a government military facility alongside best friend Zelda (the marvellous Octavia Spencer). By day she sleeps or watches old movies with her friend and neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), a sad commercial artist with a backstory of alcoholism. She cannot speak or make or sound, but she can hear, and her life is full of rhythm, music, and musical noise.

Octavia Spencer as Zelda in The Shape of Water

Then one night aggressive, sexist, cruel government agent Strickland (Michael Shannon – only he (okay, and Christopher Walken) could get away with playing such an irredeemably awful character and still make him interesting) brings a new 'asset' to the facility – and Elisa's life is changed forever.

And so begins a charming, heartfelt and utterly unconventional cross-species love story that should feel all wrong but somehow, in this dark, dog-eared, old fashioned children's book of a world, feels absolutely right.

Like del Toro's previous fantasy masterpiece, Pan's Labyrinth, The Shape of Water seems to co-exist on two levels: the 'real' world of clocking in and clocking out, packed lunches and television, Cold War paranoia and casual racism, and an imaginary plane of sensory delight. And it's when the two worlds collide that the film is at its finest (until it goes too far, that is, and veers into a cheesy song and dance number that looks as if it stepped right out of The Artist and should probably have stayed there).

Michael Shannon in The Shape of Water

But that aside, I absolutely loved this film. Like Beauty and the Beast (Ron Perlman version, obvs) meets Free Willy (seriously – did you not cry when that darned whale swam away?) it combines a deliciously dark sensibility with a gentle, almost naive sweetness (and the odd moment of ultra-violence…), managing to be charming, involving and thought-provoking at the same time. Yes, it's a movie about a fish monster, but it's also about love, acceptance and seeing beyond superficial appearances to the heart beneath. And in this increasingly horrible world, that can only be a good thing. So don't think about it too much (really, really don't) and let yourself get carried away by The Shape of Water.

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