★★★★★ - THE DOMINION POST
- I am in love with a portly 53-year-old Mexican man with a scraggly beard and an impenetrable accent.
It's been this way since 2002, when I was scribbling reviews for a late and much-lamented free weekly paper. I took it upon myself to see Blade 2 and pretty quickly began to notice the film was going about its business in a far more interesting and audacious style than any film with "Blade" or "2" in the title really had any right to. By the end, I was impressed enough to write up a scorcher of a review and to go back and see it again later that week. The director of Blade 2 was, of course, Guillermo del Toro.
The success of Blade 2 has allowed del Toro more creative freedom in the years since, and he has gone on to make a succession of films that are never less than wonderful to look at and, occasionally, downright astonishing. Find yourself a copy of 2001's The Devil's Backbone, re-watch Pan's Labyrinth, or put Hellboy on a big screen with everything wound up to 11 and maybe you'll understand why I reckon it's still the best comic-based superhero movie of the lot.
The Shape of Water finds del Toro midway between the commercial bombast of Hellboy and Pacific Rim, and the quieter darker stuff at the heart of Pan's Labyrinth.
A humanoid river-monster, with a more than passing resemblance to Hellboy's Abe Sapien (also played by Doug Jones) has been captured in South America and is now held prisoner in an American military laboratory. Employed as a cleaner at the lab, Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mute young woman with a devilish sense of humour and a great affection for her morning bath. A riotously unlikely love affair blooms.
Hellboy also featured a secretive military cabal. But one which was actually working to keep us all safe from the things that go bump in the night. "We are the ones who bump back," said Hellboy's protector and mentor John Hurt at one point.
The Shape of Water is – in some ways – Hellboy reimagined for this cynical, xenophobic and divisive era. The military, personified by every director's favourite heartless psychopath Michael Shannon, who are keeping this aquatic man prisoner, care nothing for his well-being, or ours, they just want to exploit his unique biology to gain an edge over the Soviets in the space race.
What unfolds is an old-fashioned love-story, a comic thriller of unlikely escape plans and a brawling satire of everything that goes wrong at the places where governments and the governed interact.
Although Del Toro is a hellishly bold and swaggering aestheticist himself, with The Shape of Water he almost seems to be paying tribute to the films of the French duo of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro. If you know Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children and Amelie, you'll be unmistakably reminded of their colour palette and sense for an interior space. The Shape of Water may be set in 1960's USA, but in Blackadder's immortal words, "it's all a bit French, Baldrick".
The anarchic spirit of Terry Gilliam – especially his Brazil and Twelve Monkeys – also hovers nearby.
The Shape of Water is an adult film shot through with the sensibilities of a brilliant, mischievous kid with a great box of toys.
Del Toro's absolute love for his craft and this story comes cascading out of every frame.
Until Gilliam's Don Quixote gets released – maybe – later this year, The Shape of Water is an early contender for my favourite film of 2018. The love affair continues.