REVIEW / FANTASY
THE SHAPE OF WATER (M18)
124 minutes/Opens today/ 4 stars
The story: At the height of the Cold War in the 1960s, a top-secret project is under way at a laboratory where sanitation worker Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) work. Despite warnings by operative Strickland (Michael Shannon) and scientist Dr Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) to stay away, Elisa feels drawn to the water tank in which a mystery resides.
Sally Hawkins brings a combination of frailty and strength to her part in this movie that makes her performance the pillar on which everything else stands.
As Elisa, the cleaner robbed of her voice, but overflowing with expression, her performance breathes humanity into a picture that might otherwise have merely been an exercise in style, a fanboy's love letter to the monster movies of the 1950s.
Director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro's sets and art direction pay homage to classics of the creature feature genre, while filtering it through his own Latin American lens of magical realism. Elisa's workplace, for example, is a sterile zone of serious men doing serious Cold War work one minute and, in the next, it is a fantasy water park, a place where a woman and a monster might fall in love.
The Shape Of Water can be seen as a companion piece to del Toro's Crimson Peak (2015). Both see the story through the eyes of a woman whose love for her partner pulls her into strange, dangerous territory.
On the face of it, that structure could apply to dozens of other films, but what makes a del Toro film unique is the atmosphere: the way things look, move and, especially, how these are matched to the score.
The signature moments happen when things slow down, when the woman protagonist is mesmerised by a glimpse of the uncanny, followed by the suspense of never knowing if she will be murdered or find a friend.
Neither the Academy nor the Golden Globes had any love for Crimson Peak, yet The Shape Of Water has been given the most nominations for any film this year - 13, including a Best Actress nod for Hawkins.
The reason is that Crimson Peak was viewed as a big-budget work of mainstream horror, starring names such as Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain, while The Shape Of Water's cast reads like an awards-draped list of actor's actors: Hawkins, Stuhlbarg, Spencer, Shannon and Richard Jenkins. All of them are excellent.
The central conceit of a beauty-and-beast romance is not new, but del Toro makes it fresh by staging it like a fantasy musical - neither male nor female can make words, but in the water, their dance says everything that needs to be said.