The Shape of Water review- Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy has monster-sized heart

Sally Hawkins superstars as a cleanser smitten with a scaly underwater beast in this cold war-era animal feature that melds ravishing romance with B-movie thrills

Guillermo del Toro‘s new movie is a ravishing 60 s-set romance, sweet, sad and sexy. It’s about two lonely hearts who like to meet up during lunch break at work, passing food back and forth and listening to records on a portable turntable. Together, they overcome their hindrances and start blithely bounding over all the impediments in their route- such as the fact that lovelorn Elisa is mute, unable to speak since she was a child. Or that her boyfriend has fins and gills and lives underwater, like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. The course of true love was never meant to run smooth.

I confess that I’ve been agnostic about Del Toro in the past- filing the Mexican film-maker away as an ideas human; a director who shoots for the moon only to fall slightly short. But I really liked The Shape of Water, which plays in rivalry here at Venice. It feels less of a fevered artistic workout than his other recent work; more seamless and successful in the way it orders its material. Yes, Del Toro’s latest flight of fancy sets out to liberally pastiche the postwar monster movie, doffing its cap to the incident at Roswell and all manner of associated cold war paranoia. But it’s warmer and richer than the films that went before. Beneath that glossy, scaly surface is a beating heart.

Sally Hawkins gives a lovely, limber performance as Elisa, the cleanser at a shady Baltimore laboratory, swabbing out the toilets alongside the hard-bitten Zelda( Octavia Spencer ).” Some of the best intellects in the country ,” sniffs Zelda disapprovingly,” and they still pissing all over the floor in here .” Then one morning a big metal tank is wheeled into the basement. It contains an exotic amphibian, mute like Elisa and recently fished from a South American river. The beast is dangerous- it devours cats and human fingers. But Elisa is entranced and takes to stealing downstairs whenever she has time to spare, placing hard-boiled eggs on the rim of the tank and waiting for the brute to come and feed his lunch.

The Shape of Water isn’t simply a romance, but a B-movie thriller as well- which naturally entails the clandestine sessions can’t last. Prowling the passageways, swinging his nightstick, is Michael Shannon‘s Strickland, a brutal government goon who styles himself as the monster’s tormentor-in-chief.” That thing we keep in there is an affront ,” he barks at the cleaners.” You know what that means ?” So Elisa receives herself embroiled in a three-way tug-of-war. Strickland wants to dissect the brute; the Soviets want to capture it. So Elisa embarks on a fraught rescue mission- aided at various turns by the redoubtable Zelda and her middle-aged, gay best friend( Richard Jenkins ), who lives in the apartment next door.

Let’s gloss over the idea that a minimum-wage cleaner would be allowed unfettered access to such a fantastical animal, never mind embark on a scheme that involves spiriting him out, into the midst of Baltimore, concealed inside a linen streetcar. Del Toro provides just enough spade-work to keep the scheme plausible and his movie is stylish and charming; red meat for the senses with some sugar on top.

Egg-celent Egg-celent adventure … The Shape of Water. Photograph: AP

Who can say whether these two star-crossed fans will find their own perfect ending? The odds remain stacked against them, while the motto on the wall calendar strikes a cautionary note. “Life,” it reminds us,” is just the shipwreck of our plans .” But in the meantime here the objective is, lying low inside a flea-bitten apartment, like Robert Redford and Jane Fonda in Barefoot in the Park. Elisa is happy and horny and very nearly free. She used to begin every work day by masturbating in the bath. She now has an exciting new partner waiting for her in the tub.

The Shape of Water was screening at the Venice film festival and is released in cinemas in 2018

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