The Shape Of Water

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Shape Of Water
"Hawkins has waited decades for a role like this, in which she can fully exercise her talents."

In 1954, The Creature From The Black Lagoon introduced an amphibious humanoid who both terrified viewers and attracted their sympathy as he ws brutalised by exploitative men and fell in love with a beautiful woman. In 2004's Hellboy, Guillermo del Toro gave his take on Abe Sapien a similar form and a similar pathos, though Abe could speak and enjoyed a measure of respect from his human companions. Now he brings us a creature somewhere between the two - both intelligent and wild, voiceless yet communicative, a prisoner who was once worshipped as a god.

We first encounter this creature (played by an unrecognisable Doug Jones) as a ripple of muscle, something unknown impacting the roof of a containment tube, startling the cleaner who is peering into it. She's Eliza (Sally Hawkins), a shy mute woman with a demanding schedule who was found abandoned by a river as a child and doesn't expect much from life. Though she and her protective colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer) are quickly hustled out of the room where government scientists have to get on with their experiments, Eliza sneaks back in later to get a better look at the creature. Over the course of some weeks, during which she discovers that he's being tortured at the behest of consummate bad guy Strickland (Michael Shannon), the two form a strange relationship. She takes him eggs, introduces him to music and sign language, and ultimately becomes determined to facilitate his escape.

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Like Pan's Labyrinth, this film is framed as a fairy tale, with hints of a similar ambiguity about its ending. There are echoes of the work of Hans Christian Andersen, and it's beautifully narrated by Richard Jenkins as Giles, Eliza's lonesome neighbour and best friend. This is Fifties America; life is not easy for a gay man, any more than it is for a disabled woman or a black woman. This trio of outsiders are predisposed to relate to the creature, as is the Russian spy embedded in the institute, in whose hands the aquatic man's fate may rest.

Del Toro might be criticised for relying heavily on archetypes in his characterisation, but such is the nature of fairy tales, and finely detailed performances bring each one of them to life. Hawkins has waited decades for a role like this, in which she can fully exercise her talents. The inability to speak does little to limit her powers of expression and there are many humorous moments - even some gleefully obscene ones - where she illustrates what can be conveyed through gesture. Importantly, however, muteness is only one aspect of her character. What come across most strongly are her sweetness and her sense of otherness, of not quite fitting in. This latter is exacerbated by Strickland's fetishisation of her disability. The ever reliable Shannon delivers one of his finest performances to date as the film's real monster, unthinkingly arrogant and self-righteous yet painstakingly deliberate in everything he does, a man who carries a cattle prod and doesn't wash his hands after going to the toilet for fear of appearing effeminate.

This is a fairy tale in the old sense and pulls no punches. There are scenes of real brutality and intense eroticism, as well as a scene with an animal which is likely to horrify many viewers regardless of their age or their usual viewing proclivities. Of course, it's all wrapped up with sumptuous set design, evocative cinematography and superb editing, as Del Toro fans have come to expect. The pacing isn't quite as tight as in some of his films and it drags a little in the middle, but this is a minor problem with an otherwise compelling piece of work. For open minded viewers who don't have delicate stomachs or overly hardened hearts, there is much to admire here. It's a film with which some will fall in love.

Reviewed on: 02 Dec 2017
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The Shape Of Water packshot
A woman who works in a secret government lab discovers a classified experiment.


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