If I had to describe the story of The Shape of Water to you in one sentence, it would sound decidedly like niche fetish porn.
And yet the multiple-Oscar nominated picture takes that and then somehow promptly sweeps you along in a sumptuous wave of nostalgia, romance and magic, depositing you at the end credits in an emotional puddle, thoroughly entranced.
Guillermo del Toro’s fable centres around a god-like waterborne beast, captured from a river in South America and now incarcerated aquatically in an aerospace research facility in 1960s Baltimore, USA.
Quietly going about her daily routine up until his arrival is mysterious mute Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins, with deep, dreamy pools for eyes), who boils her eggs, takes pleasurable baths, snoozes against the window of the bus and sweeps the floors at the aforementioned high-security Occam where military types with star-studded shoulders plot their next move to outwit the Russians – the action framed by the sense of Cold War paranoia.
When she witnesses the cattle-prod torture being inflicted on the site’s latest asset in the secret lab, she resolves to rescue him and release him back to the canal when the rains come in October.
Her partners in crime for this mission are cleaning cart sidekick Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who more than makes up for her colleague’s lack of words and has the most incredible gait while running in kitten heels and next-door neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), who has lost his job and his hair and his heart to a key lime pie baker. The actor lends his undervalued vocal resonance as narrator, while presenting on screen as the faintly tragic, faded and closeted freelancing artist, whose Norman Rockwell-style imagery is becoming, like him (surrounded by his cats and sing-a-long flicks), forgotten amid the push for a space race future.
There is only one monster in this piece and that is vengeful government official Strickland (rent-a-baddie-face Michael Shannon). He sees the creature as an “affront” and is charged with overseeing its vivisection. And he is even more determined to take his task to its successful conclusion after his nemesis has a chomp on a couple of his fingers, the stench from the resulting gangrene signalling his arrival long before he has entered a room. Rotten from the inside out.
Guillermo del Toro (he of the standout Pan’s Labyrinth fame) has a few calling cards to ensure the viewer is in no doubt this work belongs to him. Lingering and often shocking moments of violence and the villain of the piece being man are but two. These juxtapose with rich palettes – decidedly oceanic greens and blues this time, luxuriant cinematography (the screen dripping literally and metaphorically with detail) and a sucker punch when it comes to the eternal question of love.
Elisa feels like a fish out of water in the real world and yet her web-footed (Dover) soul mate only sees what she is rather than what she is not. Were they scratches the orphan, found by the water’s edge, is hiding under her ebony bob cut on her neck…or perhaps gills?
And now the tender bond builds through sign language and old records with the audience willing on the pair, not questioning its surface absurdity. Compare the mechanical sex of Strickland and his unfortunate dolly bird of a wife with the mere hint of a beautiful aquamarine light show of a union between our protagonists.
There is a magnificently-shimmering scene where our heroine leaves the taps running in order to float naked and free with her beau (the lissom-limbed, sinuous ectomorph sea being brought to life by Doug Jones). Yes, that would have royally knackered the gorgeous parquet flooring in her little flat, not to mention the movie theatre beneath them. But she is handy with a mop and bucket so apparently no harm done and a memory to last a lifetime.
All this is accompanied by Alexander Desplat’s score, which harks to a subaqueous Amélie.
Some may see The Shape of Water as an awards season box-ticking ode to the bygone days of Hollywood (exploited by La La Land and The Artist before it).
This fairy tale of a film is unapologetically sentimental, but it cannot fail to reach out to the romantic within you, should you be open to the flood of emotion it rouses. And if you are, you will forgive it everything for the greater message – love, and tolerance, conquer all.