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The Shape of Water (Venice Film Festival)

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“Fantasy is always political,” proclaimed Guillermo del Toro following the 15-minute standing ovation for his new film. After a weird sojourn to Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak, the much-loved writer and director of Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth is back in familiar territory mixing cruelty, fantasy and romance in Cold War era America. This is a modern-day fairy tale about an unexpected love between a mute girl and an aquatic god-beast and the battle between science and the beast’s inexplicable talents. It is also a tale of unexpected friendships set against a time of casual misogyny and brutal state oppression…. ummmm, sounds strangely familiar.

Del Toro delivers a masterful romantic vision full of enchantment and magical realism that recalls his earlier Spanish language films such as Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. As with Pan’s Labyrinth this is dark territory seen through the eyes of a young child, with the sadistic US government official standing in for the fascists. The labyrinth is replaced with watery images that overflow and conceal an aquatic creature that is at once terrifying, magical and misunderstood. This film is pure old-fashioned movie magic that will engross younger viewers (although it will undoubtedly have an MA+ rating) and adults alike – a critique of brutally stupid Cold War America and at the same time an exotic love affair between a delicate, damaged young woman and a swampy beast.

The brittle, lonely but feisty Sally Hawkins plays Eliza Esposito, a mute cleaner at a U.S. government military facility who develops a deep understanding of The Asset, an amphibious creature kept in a tank for space science experimentation. Her two friends, another cleaner Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and illustrator neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) are instrumental in helping her save The Asset from senseless destruction by the authorities. Michael Shannon is Strickland, a hard arse cold warrior, the head of the military facility and, though concealed by good-ol’ American buttoned-downed conservatism, his machine-like sadism is boundless.

This is a battle between good and evil, but here the polarities are reversed. The hero is a fragile mute girl and her accomplices are a Russian counter-intelligence scientist, a gay illustrator and a plump African-American cleaner constantly abused by her husband.

For a fantasy fairy tale, The Shape of Water is unexpectedly moving and emotionally rich, and the visually ravishing art direction adds to the experience rather than distracting from the storyline which is deceptively simple. Indeed, if the storyline is familiar it is because it appears to be a reasonably direct adaptation of the 1962 Soviet science-fiction romance, Amphibian Man, with a focus less on science and more on love won and lost. Like the Soviet film, The Shape of Water is also a meditation on greed, commercial exploitation and the brutality applied by man to anything that is different, gentle and meek. There are also resonances with The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Although the opportunities for special effects were clearly available, Del Toro’s piscine amphibious humanoid is a modest and compelling beast that appears very similar to the 1950s creature.

Eliza and Giles’ apartments are in an old Baltimore building above an old movie cinema, which triggers a swathe of vintage movie connections to look out for: from noir, thrillers and ‘30s musicals that deepen our engagement with the movie and network the characters to our cinematic memory cortex. Dan Laustsen’s cinematography is superb and makes those cinematic connections meaningful rather than cute quotations. The production design team let by Paul Denham Austerberry clearly had fun.

Thematically the film examines social intolerance toward otherness (gay, damaged, disabled, black, an aquatic creature) that is just as relevant today as it must have been in the 1960s. Perhaps the most modern and innovative character interpretation is the portrait of Eliza – she is mute, with scars around her neck and communicates only with sign-language but she is also a passionate woman full of desire and a feistiness that belies her small, fragile stature – she masturbates regularly in the bath at home and at work develops a fascination and then love for the aquatic creature experimented upon in the lab that she cleans. It is her relationship with the beast that is at the heart of this film – it is at once fantastical and surprisingly erotic.

The Shape of Water is magical, old fashioned cinema, which proves to be vibrant, delightful escapism rich with emotion and significance.