Thursday, 12 October 2017

LFF 2017: The Shape Of Water

dir. Guillermo del Toro, USA, 2017
For some reason I wandered into Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape Of Water thinking it was a fairy tale film for kids – a supposition borne out by the dreamy, opening shots of an underwater fantasy and Alexandre Desplat’s tinkly score. But then the first scene showed me much more of Sally Hawkins than I’d expected to see, and when she started furiously scratching a very private itch in the bath I began to suspect that perhaps this was, in fact, a fairy tale for grown-ups after all.

Despite all the itch-scratching (OK, fine, she was having a massive wank), the choice language and the Scenes Of An Adult Nature, The Shape Of Water still seems a little confused in terms of its audience. A good old-fashioned ‘80s-tinged tale of a monster who isn’t monstrous, a heartless military intent on chopping the monster into little pieces and a plucky bunch of unlikely allies determined to save it, The Shape Of Water shamelessly taps into the apparently endless current wave of nostalgia on which popular fluff like Super 8, Stranger Things, It and - to some extent – the Guardians Of The Galaxy films have successfully surfed. It’s essentially E.T., if Elliott was a lonely thirty-something woman and E.T. had a hidden pop-up cock.

If that sounds like your can of Quatro, then the good news is that del Toro does all of it in beautifully-rendered gorge-o-vision. Making good use of his Amelie filter, cinematographer Dan Laustsen paints Hawkins’ environment in deep reds, greens and browns, while the mysterious underground government facility at which she works as a cleaner is all sterile greys, its employees sporting the white short sleeved shirts and thin black ties required by the early 1960s setting.
In keeping with the nostalgic vibe, The Shape Of Water’s unnamed monster isn’t made from soulless CG (well, not entirely) but is played by del Toro stalwart Doug Jones in a rubber suit, and he deserves kudos for sidestepping unintentional ridiculous hilarity to imbue his creation with something approaching a soul. That said, he - and in fact everyone else - is trumped by Sally Hawkins for sheer emotional overwhelmitude: her sad, mute heroine Elisa is an award-worthy turn in which The Hawk uses the absence of her voice to dazzling effect, and she makes for a refreshingly original protagonist. In support are Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer as similar misfits – respectively a gay man unwelcome in “family establishments” and a black woman only too used to being referred to as “you people” by white men at work.

Those themes of otherness, prejudice and tolerance, so frequently used to unite monsters and minorities against the establishment, are subtly deployed here – almost disappointingly so. While some kind of triumph of the underdog is inevitable once you know where the story’s going, the film could still benefit from a little more sticking it to the man to be a true crowd-pleaser; it’s no exaggeration to say that The Shape Of Water isn’t quite as socially complex a film as last year’s cartoon-rabbit-and-fox-led Zootropolis.

There’s plenty of charm to go around though, Michael Shannon’s pantomime villain is great value and del Toro’s world-building is spectacularly imaginative even in this, the least outlandish of his recent films. Award noms for production and sound design and cinematography are assured, and with any luck Sally Hawkins will walk away with a trophy or two as well. In which case she would be quite justified in going home and having a massive celebratory scratch.

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