Thursday, 15 February 2018

The Shape Of Water

When I was 7 there was a cartoon on RTE2 called the Snorks. Snorks were little creatures that lived at the bottom of the sea. There was a girl snork in it called Casey. I loved her. It sounds odd but everyone is odd when they are 7. Anyway, armed with this 32 year old memory I went into the very hyped up new Guillermo Del Toro film 'The Shape Of Water' to see did it live up to what people have been saying about it for months. 

Happily I'm glad to say it does. It's his best film since Hellboy 2.

Elisa is a mute woman living in Baltimore in 1962. The cold war is at its height. Elisa works as a cleaner in a secret government laboratory. Her only two acquaintances in the world are Zelda, a fellow cleaner who also interprets for her at work and her neighbour Giles, a gay man who has just lost his advertising job. Both love and care for her because her condition makes her a perfect listener. One day at work an aquatic creature is brought to the lab to be studied for military reasons. Elisa takes pity on the creature and begins to pay it secret visits and slowly a bond begins to build between them. 

It sounds a bit odd doesn't it. It is but it's also tender, beautiful and sad and joyous. The kind of movie that's just hopeful and has you leaving the cinema on a high. Sally Hawkins gives a fantastic performance without ever saying a word. Her character with one look radiates empathy and affection better than 100 lines of dialogue could. She's just great. Economic (wait til you see her morning routine), level headed and unsqueamish. She's her own woman and answers to no-one. Her two best friends are a black woman and a gay man in a time where associating with either was frowned on. You can't beat a film with a warm heart at the centre of it. So many films today are built around hateful characters. They give you no one to grasp for. This one does in spades. 

Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer play Giles and Zelda and give us two more thoroughly likable characters but both sadly suffering from oppression in different ways. Most oppressed of all is the creature played by Del Toro regular Doug Jones. Like Hawkins his is a non verbal role and he's even more hampered by a lack of sign language yet still does cracking work getting across the creature's suffering, dignity and curiosity.  He doesn't have a good time in this film but seeing the growing connection between him and Elisa is a delight .

Even though the film is set 56 years in the past it still feels topical as hell. The cold war was a time where the threat of nuclear war was at an all time high and here in the real world it's like that all over again. The spectre of homophobia and racism hover over the film too. The early Sixties weren't a good time to be gay or black and in present day America things aren't much better. The racism extends to the treatment of the creature too. He's different and doesn't get treated nicely because of it. Michael Shannon's bad lad government guy is a hissable villain. A real nasty piece of work. He's played as a distillation of everything that's wrong with America at the moment. All the cruelty and hate boiled down to one man who's determined to take his anger out on anyone who's different, be they mute, black or non-human.

Director Guillermo Del Toro has a fantastic eye and creates images that will stay in your head for an age. Apartments and labs filled with noirish shadows. An embrace in a flooded room. A black and white sequence straight out of a 1930's Warner Brothers musical. A first time in a movie theatre. Glorious. You can tell he's influenced by and a fan of films from the mid 20th century. The noir thrillers of the 30's/40's/50's with their shadowy locations and constant fear of "the other" and the monster films from the same time. The Creature From The Black Lagoon especially is homaged here except this time the creature is sound and the heroine is running towards it instead of swimming away from it.

All these lovely visuals are good but thankfully they're backed up with a cracking story and characters worth caring about. Del Toro has created a fairy tale for the modern age. It's not really one for the family though as it's studded with moments of sexuality and terror and some pretty nasty violence (fingers!!). But if you're a fan of the aul romance stuff and also like your films a little bit different too, well this is going to be perfect for you. 

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