By Mark Kermode
In my opinion, the 21st century has produced no finer movie than Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 masterpiece, which acts as a sister picture to his 2001 Spanish civil war ghost story, The Devil’s Backbone. Like Del Toro’s first feature, Cronos (1993), these Spanish-language gems possessed a unique cinematic voice, the distant echo of which could still be heard even amid the thunderous roar of 2013’s Pacific Rim. Now, with his awards-garlanded latest (co-scripted by Game of Thrones graduate Vanessa Taylor), Del Toro has conjured a boundary-crossing hybrid that is as adventurously personal as it is universal, a swooning romantic melodrama that reshapes the mythical themes of Beauty and the Beast with deliciously bestial bite.
An opening voiceover establishes the fable-like tone, setting the story “a long time ago” in “a small city near the coast, but far from everything else”. This is the US in the early-60s, with the cold war and the space race providing the backdrop for “a tale of love and loss and the monster who tried to destroy it all”.
Sally Hawkins is sublime as the orphaned Elisa Esposito, voiceless since the day she was found “by the river, in the water”, the scars on her neck suggesting the key to her silence. Elisa lives above the Orpheum cinema, an old-school dream palace where The Story of Ruth and Mardi Gras play to a slow trickle of patrons. Her neighbour, Giles (Richard Jenkins), is an artist who has lost both his hair and his job and spends his days watching Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Betty Grable on TV reruns, dreaming of the waiter behind the counter in the local Dixie Doug’s pie emporium.
Elisa works as a cleaner at the Occam aerospace research facility where she mops floors with the loquacious Zelda (Octavia Spencer). When Occam takes possession of an amphibious creature from the Amazon, Dr Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) wants to learn from this strange beast, once revered by local tribes as a god. Vindictive government agent Strickland (Michael Shannon) disagrees, seeing only “an affront” that he dragged here from South America to be tortured and destroyed. Yet Elisa, whose expansive and erotic dreams are fuelled by water, hears music in the creature’s plaintive cry; a haunting refrain interweaving with the waltzing melody that accompanies her own floating steps.
What follows is a weird and wondrous romantic thriller that casts its inspirational web wide: from 50s monster movies such as Creature From the Black Lagoon to Ron Howard’s 80s mermaid rom-com Splash, via the 12th-century writings of Persian poet Hakim Sanai. Del Toro calls it “a fairytale for troubled times”, citing Douglas Sirk and Vincente Minnelli as touchstones, alongside Mexican film-maker Ismael Rodríguez. There are strong undercurrents, too, of the silent pathos of Keaton and Chaplin, interspersed with bouts of musical fantasy, including an audacious Fred and Ginger-style routine that mirrors the monochrome dance designs of Follow the Fleet.
It sounds ridiculous, yet through some magical alchemy it works – magnificently so. Part of its success is the superb ensemble cast: Shannon seething as the scripture-quoting patriot whose world starts rotting from the inside out; Spencer radiating resilience as Zelda, tirelessly tending to the needs of others; Stuhlbarg underplaying nicely as the scientist with lofty aspirations and fluid affiliations. As for Doug Jones (who has been breathing life into Del Toro’s beautiful monsters for decades), his shimmering amphibian man is a sinewy symphony of movement, the perfect partner for Hawkins’s heroine, swimming through the dreamy pools of her endlessly expressive eyes.
Luis Sequeira’s costumes and Paul D Austerberry’s production designs make this blue-green fantasy world real, while Dan Laustsen’s cameras flow like water around the drama, their movement providing the cue for Alexandre Desplat’s lovely score, which juxtaposes jaunty accordions with breathy flutes – musical dialogue for wordless characters.
“You’ll never know just how much I care,” runs the tune, sung by Alice Faye in Hello, Frisco, Hello, which echoes nostalgically through The Shape of Water. The genius of Del Toro’s creation is that we know exactly how much Elisa cares for her soulmate and how he makes silent sense of her fish-out-of-water feelings. Watching them dance around each other, I became aware of the shape of my own tears, swept along by the emotional waves of Del Toro’s sparkling drama, succumbing to its seductively melancholy song of the sea.