I was fortunate enough to go to an Odeon “Screen Unseen” showing on Monday the 15th of January and the mystery film was none other than Guillermo Del Toro’s already critically -lauded ‘The Shape Of Water’. It’s a bizarre and enigmatic title for a, frankly, bizarre and enigmatic film.
For starters, it’s not often that a love story / romantic drama features scenes of wince-inducing violence, such as a man being shot in the cheek, but then the Mexican auteur was never one to do anything by-the-book.
The masterful story-teller behind ‘Cronos’, ‘The Devil’s Backbone’ and the much-under-rated 1997 horror-thriller ‘Mimic’ weaves his unique vision this time to 1950’s Baltimore for this beautiful and understated romantic drama.
Ultra-talented British actress Sally Hawkins (‘Paddington’, ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’, ‘Dagenham Girls’) put in an amazingly subtle and nuanced performance as the mute, night-shift cleaner of an underground research facility. And when a mysterious shipment arrives, things begin to get seriously ‘unusual’.
The first thing to mention is the fabulous production design: the cars, the clothes, the music the characters listen to, the artwork in their homes, the props: all are just totally authentic, giving the film a look which is at the same time other-worldly, yet oddly comforting and homely.
Hawkins (who actually learned sign language for the role) is simply sublime in her role. Adorable, sympathetic, sensitive and yet with a steely resolve that believes her sad and lonely demeanour. And she manages to convey all this without uttering a single word, which certainly takes some doing.
As always, Richard Jenkins (Bone Tomahawk – one of my Top Thirty Films I Watched In 2017 – https://projectsquareeyes.wordpress.com/2018/01/12/the-top-thirty-films-i-watched-in-2017/ , Let Me In, Kong: Skull Island, Killing Them Softly) puts in his usual masterclass in world-weary supporting characters as Hawkins’ flat-mate and confidante ‘Giles’. Octavia Spencer gives a brilliantly staunch performance as Hawkins’ colleague and best-friend and Michael Stuhlbarg (‘A Serious Man, ‘ Seven Psychopaths’) plays a scientist who may or may not be all he appears.
Special mention must go to Michael Shannon (‘The Iceman’, ‘Take Shelter’ , ‘Batman Vs. Superman’ , ‘ Boardwalk Empire’ , the much under-rated ‘Premium Rush’) who is never better than when he is playing starched-shirt Government stiff-types with a barely- concealed fountain of rage simmering just below the surface. He gets to revel in his role here as a desperate starched-shirt Government stiff-type tasked with the most undesirable of jobs (and just don’t ask him about his bathroom routines…or what that smell is!). He is an absolute force of nature and just watching him gradually unravel was grimly superb.
The pacing of the film is bang-on and at 123 minutes, meaning it is never rushed or saggy and it reminded me of ‘Chocolat’ and strongly of the films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, most notably ‘Amelie’ (also cosy, homely yet bizarrely other-worldly) , ‘Mic Macs’ and ‘Delicatessen’, for their distinct look and feel.
Another special mention must also go to Del Toro regular Doug Jones (‘HellBoy’) for putting in a magnificently unique performance under such enduring and constrictive of conditions, but to say too much about his character would be to give the game away.
All-in-all, if you like wonderfully shot, scripted, acted, paced and designed 1950’s-set romantic dramas (such as Cate Blanchett’s exceptional ‘Carol’) with a very unusual edge indeed to them, then there is much to love here.
Certain to sweep the board at the Oscars next month with its astonishing thirteen nominations (one of only three films ever to achieve this), check out this magnificently made, funny, strange, touching, sad and tender love story whilst you can. Marvellous.