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Nothing fishy about new del Toro flick

Golden Globe-nominated film dances between lush fantasy and harsh reality

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/12/2017 (1011 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Befitting his beard and his girth, director Guillermo del Toro might as well be a cinematic Santa Claus. Because with The Shape of Water, he has just unpacked a gift that is outsized and gorgeous, but also mysterious and disturbing around its edges.

As he did with his 2006 masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro stages a graceful waltz that dances between lush fantasy and harsh reality. Pan’s Labyrinth, ostensibly about a young girl’s discovery of a secret realm of fairies and monsters, was set in Spain in the early years of Franco’s fascist regime. The Shape of Water is deliberately in the America of the early 1960s, an era when even a Republican president had expressed jitters about the inexorable rise of a "military-industrial complex."

We are plunged into that world courtesy of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman whose job is to mop up after the scientists and military men working in a semi-subterranean secret facility.

Richard Jenkins and Doug Jones. (Fox Searchlight)</p>

Richard Jenkins and Doug Jones. (Fox Searchlight)

In short order, Elisa finds herself mopping up blood following a violent encounter involving Strickland (Michael Shannon), a former military man. Strickland’s arrogance and violence have put him on the bad side of an exotic biological find: a fish-man (Doug Jones) worshipped in his South American habitat as a god.

Strickland views the creature as a monster to be studied, preferably in a post-mortem. At least one scientist, Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) sees the creature as a natural wonder to be preserved.

Elisa, stealing glimpses of the creature, sees him in an entirely different light. In an opening montage of Elisa’s daily ritual, sexual self-gratification in a bathtub figures prominently, and... well, let’s just say the creature’s aquatic nature is not seen as an impediment to a budding relationship.

Elisa feels compelled to save the creature, and in that effort, she enlists her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), a commercial artist whose career has evidently been derailed by his homosexuality. Her work friend — and de facto interpreter — Zelda (Octavia Spencer) is cautious, as a black woman would be working in a bastion of white male privilege. But in keeping with the civil rights movement happening around her, she too is compelled to action.

Scripted by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, The Shape of Water dances on the edge of being didactic in the way it assembles its heroic outsiders — a confederacy of "others" in secret combat with the powers that be.

Sally Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. Hawkins takes on the role with all the humour and courage of her character.</p></p>(Photos by Kerry Hayes)</p><p>

Sally Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. Hawkins takes on the role with all the humour and courage of her character.

(Photos by Kerry Hayes)

But those concerns tend to get washed away in the sheer audacity of the premise. Basically, del Toro has taken the narrative building blocks of The Creature from the Black Lagoon and repurposed them into a love story. What’s more, he makes it work using every tool in his formidable tool box, which include a textural richness in production design typical of the director.

In particular, the creature, performed by Doug Jones (who played a super-sentient fish-man in del Toro’s Hellboy movies) is indeed a thing of beauty.

It’s the actors who really put it over the top. Brit actress Hawkins takes on the role with all the humour and courage of her character. And in the role of her adversary Strickland, Shannon offers nuance in the antagonist. Unlike the sadistic villains found in most genre films, he is a profoundly joyless man, flinching at being kissed by his son and seemingly solitary even in the midst of sexual relations with his wife. Jenkins has won accolades — including a Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actor — for his solid sympathetic work, but Shannon is the guy mining the hard terrain here.

One bonus attraction to the film, given Universal Pictures expressed interest in reviving The Creature from the Black Lagoon in its slate of "Dark Universe" horror remakes. If The Mummy-as-Tom-Cruise-vehicle didn’t put the nail in that tomb, del Toro has essentially rendered any effort in that direction anticlimactic, if not completely irrelevant.

Twitter: @FreepKing

Randall King

Randall King

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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