Dir: Guillermo del Toro; Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg. Cert 15, 119 mins.
Guillermo del Toro’s films are often as sensuously contorted as the monstrous creatures that lurk within them, but his latest is a pretzel-twist of pure strangeness, even by his standards. The Shape of Water is an honest-to-God B-movie blood-curdler that’s also, somehow, a shimmeringly earnest and boundlessly beautiful melodrama: think Creature From the Black Lagoon directed by Douglas Sirk.
It offers what must be cinema’s uneasiest probing of the postwar American psyche since Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master – and is unquestionably del Toro’s best, richest film since his 2006 Spanish-language masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth. Crucially, it’s also one that he and he alone could have dreamt up.
The bright-eyed heroine of the piece is Elisa (Sally Hawkins), who lives alone in an apartment above a crumbling repertory cinema in downtown Baltimore, and works nights as a charlady at the pointedly named Occam Aerospace Research Centre, where the strange goings-on defy a neatly razored explanation.
The films on the marquee below Elisa’s window (The Story of Ruth and a half-forgotten Pat Boone musical called Mardi Gras, both playing in “triumphant return”) place the action in the early 1960s, but as so often with the Mexican director, it also has the timeless glow of fairy-tale – and could often almost be Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid turned back to front.
An opening narration, provided by Elisa’s neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) describes her as “a princess without a voice” – the film’s poetic way of breaking it to us that she’s a lifelong mute, after having her vocal cords cut in early childhood. The visible trace of this horrific act of abuse is a set of three slender scars on the side of her throat – and despite her quick command of sign language, she’s long since acclimatised to not being heard.
That’s one big thing that makes The Asset (Doug Jones) different from so many of the men in her life: he listens. Another is that he’s an amphibious humanoid swamp thing, dragged to Occam for vivisection in the hope that study of his complex respiratory system can give the United States an edge in the ongoing space race.
Its captor is a government agent called Strickland (Michael Shannon), who swings an enormous, electrified truncheon like he’s compensating for something, and is spotted one evening by Elisa and her plain-speaking friend and colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer) staggering from its containment unit, blotched with blood.
The two women are drafted on the spot to mop up – and Elisa makes an unlikely connection with the creature that slowly intensifies, entirely nonverbally, over the film’s opening half. And then – with paranoia reigning at Occam, and a Soviet plot to kidnap the creature unfolding in the shadows – she realises she has no choice but to stage a rescue attempt.
Elisa is, for any number of reasons, the kind of role that comes along just once a lifetime. Hawkins meets it with the performance of one. The London-born actress’s keen observational eye, technical control and puckish comic touch have been evident in films from Happy-Go-Lucky, her 2008 breakout with Mike Leigh, to Maudie (2016), a biopic of an arthritic artist. But here they’re wed to an emotional intensity and shivery eroticism that make you wriggle with delight.
An early bathtub scene establishes Elisa as an enthusiastically sexual being, regardless of the lack of a partner at hand – and in fact, it’s a side of herself she keeps intensely private. Jenkins’s Giles is similarly cagey, though for different reasons: an illustrator for an advertising agency, he’s quietly gay, with a love-life that doesn't extend beyond gentle flirtations with the guy behind the counter at his local diner.
But when Elisa tells him about the creature, his inability to see its plight as part of a larger struggle that includes his own is a splintery character flaw, deftly played by Jenkins – just as he grimaces when civil rights marchers appear on the nightly news, and switches over to the comforts of a vintage musical.
Even the fearsome Strickland – an immediate classic in Shannon’s ever-expanding gallery of villains – is being squeezed by forces beyond his control, from the demands of his military overseers to his determination to be seen as a success on society’s terms. “This is the car of the future, and you strike me as a man on his way there!” a Cadillac salesman chirpily tells him in one of a handful of riveting forays into this brute’s domestic life. What he means is: I can sense you’re petrified of being left behind.
The car dealership interlude is just one scene among many here that only a filmmaker working at the peak of their powers would even think to create. Another involves Elisa watching beads of rain waltz across the passenger window of a bus. The moment counts for next to nothing on paper – yet in context, it’s an ecstatic evocation of her changing connection to the outside world.
Let’s just say there are significantly greater surprises in store than dancing water droplets, and the film commits to each and every one with a full-hearted sincerity and warmth that’s reflected in every aspect of its craft, from Dan Laustsen’s luminous cinematography to Alexandre Desplat’s elegantly swooning score.
Like the best bath you’ve ever had, it sends tingles coursing through every part of you that other films don’t reach.
The Shape of Water will be released in UK cinemas on Friday February 16