Review / ‘The Shape of Water’ (MA) *** and a half

IN an apartment above a Chicago cinema, next door to advertising illustrator Giles (Richard Jenkins), Elisa (Sally Hawkins, looking fey yet luminously beautiful) lives alone. 

Elisa hears well. But she’s a mute, communicating in sign language with colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer). The two women work cleaning a military research facility where Strickland (Michael Shanahan) maintains discipline with unyielding intolerance and a high-voltage cattle prod.

At the facility, Dr Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) runs what passes for research. He’s obsessed, as well he might be, with an amphibian (Doug Jones) collected from a Latin American river that may have value for the US military. It can breathe equally well under water or in air. And while nobody understands what it’s saying, its emotions are clear. Hoffstetler also keeps appointments in a sand yard outside the city with some heavy fellows who speak only Russian. The plot thickens.

Now you’ve met the principal characters in Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy film and it’s time to look a little deeper. Yes, “The Shape of Water” is a spy story. It’s a bit sci-fi. It’s a gentle evocation of early ’60s middle America. Put those pieces of the puzzle together and you find yourself watching an agreeably quirky, weird even, love story. 

Del Toro’s screenplay co-written with Vanessa Taylor reflects sources from literature, opera, popular music of the time, particularly Alice Faye singing the plaintive love-song “You’ll Never Know” from the 1943 musical film “Hello, Frisco, Hello”.  His visualisation of characters and situations is delightfully inventive. He has found some lovely cars of the period.

But everything in the film comes back to Elisa, whose plight reaches out and grasps us where we can feel the pain. She yearns for love in her soul and in her flesh, pleasuring herself in the bath until she finds a creature who like her yearns for companionship and emotional passion. 

Del Toro’s Golden-Globe-winning film is stellar. Sally Hawkins’ Golden-Globe-winning  performance is breathtaking. Golly, this year’s Oscars bid fair to be exciting.

At Capitol 6, Palace Electric and Dendy

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