Review: Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water ★★★★☆

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The Shape of WaterImage source, BBC NEWS

Broadly speaking, humanity can be divided into two types: those who like the fantasy genre and those that do not.

Your pulse either races when someone starts discussing the finer details of Game of Thrones / Lord of the Rings / The Dark Crystal - or you feel the blood draining from your body.

Of course, there are exceptions that prove every rule. Which, in this case, comes in the teddy bear-like form of Guillermo del Toro.

The Mexican director bridged the divide for millions of moviegoers in 2006 with Pan's Labyrinth, his exotic, fantastical take on the Spanish Civil War.

Now, a little over a decade later, he is back to scoop up the stragglers (me included), the die-hard realists who head for the hills at the first sight of a pointy blue ear.

Admittedly, the elevator pitch for his multi-Oscar nominated The Shape of Water is unlikely to grab those of us who can live without magical realism.

Image source, 20th Century Fox
Image caption,
Doug Jones as Amphibian Man with Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito

It is a fantasy drama about a mute cleaner called Elisa (Sally Hawkins) who strikes up an improbable relationship with a mysterious amphibious creature (Doug Jones), which is being kept in a huge water tank at a top-secret government research facility in Baltimore, USA, where Elisa works.

It is, del Toro says, an "other-worldly fairy tale" - words to strike dread into the soul of any anti-fantasist.

I'll admit that when I sat down and watched the opening title sequence in which we see Elisa lying on a sofa being ethereally submerged by water, my heart sank faster than the furniture in her room.

Image source, 20th Century Fox
Image caption,
Guillermo del Torro directs Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones on the set of The Shape of Water

But when I left the cinema 123 minutes later, I was elated.

Not because the film was thankfully over, but because I had just been treated to an intelligent, tender, beautifully shot, meticulously crafted work of art.

It's not really a fantasy at all.

Image source, 20th Century Fox
Image caption,
Michael Shannon plays Richard Strickland, while Michael Stuhlbarg stars as scientist Dr Robert Hoffstetler

The incarcerated creature from the deep - which has been taken from its natural habitat as a specimen to be exploited by scientists with blood twice as cold as its own - is perfectly believable.

As is the relationship Elisa strikes up with it.

They have so much in common.

Neither speaks, both have been persecuted; they are misunderstood fish out of water suffering at the hands of an arrogant, unsympathetic society that only respects "winners" who reflect its own hard-bitten, narrow-minded values.

The film is set in early 1960s America, but speaks directly, and critically, to our own times.

Image source, 20th Century Fox
Image caption,
Giles (Richard Jenkins) enjoys a moment with his neighbour Elisa (Sally Hawkins)

Sally Hawkins is very good as a traumatised, aphasic, single woman whose every action speaks volumes. She has created her own society of fellow misfits, which includes her musicals loving neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) whose homosexuality is despised by others and traditional skills as commercial artist, redundant in a world obsessed with shiny new ideas.

Elisa's bete noir is the emotionally retarded, short-tempered government agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) who works at the high-security government laboratory she cleans every night with her pal Zelda (Octavia Spencer).

Image source, 20th Century Fox
Image caption,
Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) with Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer)

Strickland is the sort of man who'd pick a fight with a bowl of soup.

He loathes just about everybody and everything, except violence, which he really likes.

As the incarcerated amphibious creature- or the "asset" as it is officially known - discovers when the pent-up macho-man impales an electric cattle prod into its scaly abdomen.

What unfolds is part love story, part monster movie, part heist-thriller, part film noir.

Think Terry Gilliam meets the 1954 classic monster-horror flick Creature from the Black Lagoon (with a bit of French arthouse thrown in for good measure) and you won't be far off.

Image source, 20th Century Fox
Image caption,
Doug Jones as Amphibian Man with Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito

It is an affecting and affectionate film, which cracks along at a decent pace.

All the characters, apart from Strickland - who never gets beyond being a two-dimensional caricature representing intolerance and evil - develop into well drawn out individuals about whom you care, even old fish-face the mythical creature.

The Shape of Water is well worth its 13 Oscar nominations.

It won't win all 13 categories - that really would be a fantasy - but it has a very good chance of being best picture.

Not quite for me though, as I'd give the Oscar to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and best director to del Toro.