FILM REVIEW: Very weird, but simply superb

The Shape of Water
The Shape of Water

The Shape of Water (15), (123 mins) Chichester Cineworld and Whiteley Cineworld

Utterly bizarre, The Shape of Water is – fortunately – also utterly brilliant: one of the weirdest films you will ever see, but also one of the most entrancing, a strange, strange piece of genius from director Guillermo del Toro made possible by the most winning of performances from Sally Hawkins.

Hawkins is Elisa, his lonely, isolated mute who finds love in the least likely place in a Big-Brotherish Cold War 1960s top-secret US research centre. The place is presided over by the brutish, sadistic security officer Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), a man mostly content to turn his callousness on what he and his colleagues term “the asset”, a mysterious beast they have plucked out of the waters in the rather bonkers belief that they can observe it to learn lessons which will help them beat the Russians in the space race. And if they can’t learn just by watching, they will vivisect it.

Meanwhile, humble cleaner Elisa has started to take an interest, instinctively feeling a bond with a creature which is as physically chained as she is vocally restricted... and herein lies the magic of the film as a romance develops between her and the seemingly-doomed creature.

With help from a colleague (Octavia Spencer) and her neighbour (Richard Jenkins), she determines to rescue the beast as the film flirts ever more with fairy tale. There are shades of the superb A Monster Calls; there is also Beauty and the Beast, plus all manner of associations in a film which still manages to remain remarkably original - and deeply involving.

It seems pretty likely that Frances McDormand will get the best-actress Oscar for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but Guillermo del Toro’s great skill is that he makes you want to believe in fantasy to the extent that you’d love the Oscar to go to Hawkins. Brash and angry is one kind of acting, for sure, but Hawkins’ particular brand of eroticism, vulnerability and wordless complexity is quite something else – a truly remarkable performance which almost certainly won’t get the reward it deserves.

There is horror in this tale (why does the cat always get it?) but there is also immense tenderness in a story which holds you transfixed from first to last. And there is rare beauty too.

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