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Monday, January 22, 2018


(Sally Hawkins)

Fans of Pan’s Labyrinth will love writer-director Guillermo del Toro’s latest fantasy and Oscar favourite. (Review by Patrick Compton - 9/10)

This is a work of art that is brimming with cultural references, including monster movies, old musicals and fairy tales. It is also a deeply human fantasy about love and the sense of wonder and joy that accompanies its discovery.

My own cultural reference is the writer Russell Hoban, specifically his novel Turtle Diary in which two lonely, embittered strangers keep on meeting at the London Zoo aquarium and eventually plot to liberate the captured sea turtles they become obsessed with. I believe that Hoban, were he alive today, would have loved this movie.

At one point, one of his characters, William G, glumly pronounces on life: “Sometimes,” he says, “I think that this whole thing, this whole business of a world that keeps waking itself up and bothering to go on every day, is necessary only as a manifestation of the intolerable. The intolerable is like H.G. Wells's invisible man, it has to put on clothes in order to be seen. So it dresses itself up in a world. Possibly it looks in a mirror but my imagination doesn't go that far.”

This is a movie which echoes William G’s concerns, but just as his plan to free the turtles liberates him from his misery, so the film enables a lonely cleaner to find love of the most extraordinary kind.

The cleaner, played by the wonderful Sally Hawkins whose magnetic, overwhelming presence holds this film together, is a mute who works at a scientific facility in Baltimore during the height of the Cold War (circa 1960). She lives alone, but enjoys the friendship of a fellow cleaner, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and her next-door neighbour, a gentle bachelor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), who is an unsuccessful illustrator with an apartment full of cats and a love for musicals which he watches relentlessly on his TV.

One day, a strange thing happens at the lab: a monster found in a South American river – note the 1954 movie Creature from the Black Lagoon – is brought in. The creature has arms and legs, but no tail, a dark leathery skin and what may be gills around his neck. It can breathe underwater and, less happily, in air. Eliza becomes absorbed, and then besotted, bringing him boiled eggs to eat and Glenn Miller to listen to. The fact that she cannot talk somehow makes her magical communication with the creature all the more profound and realistic.

But then the picture darkens. The creature, agonised by his ill-treatment, bites off the fingers of the facility’s head of security, the monstrous Strickland (Michael Shannon) and he is duly constrained by an iron collar and chain. The American military plan to use the creature as a weapon in the space race, which has heated up, and there’s a Cold War subplot which involves a band of Russians and an initially sympathetic scientist who has been “turned”.

How to understand this film? I’m not sure it’s possible on one viewing. And I haven't even talked about the black-and-white photography and the fascinating set design.

Del Torro has created a multi-genre movie – a monster-musical-jailbreak-spy-romance – that is all his own. Somehow, though, the director has turned what could have been a chaotic mess into a beautiful confluence of all the streams that run into this aquatic creation, largely due, I suspect, to Sally Hawkins’s extraordinary all-encompassing performance.

What is clear, however, is that Del Toro has recognised the power of fantasy in all our lives, and how powerful a force it is. I acknowledge that some will be left cold by this movie, but this review is for those who quietly celebrate it as gold dust.

The Shape of Water opened at Gateway Mall on January 19. – Patrick Compton