Guillermo del Toro’s visually ravishing fantasy romance The Shape of Water almost drowns in its own gorgeousness. It is a Beauty and the Beast fable where both get to be beautiful and neither has to be beastly. The two of them are part of a world that Del Toro has dreamed into existence with authority, confidence and miraculous detail. His signature is unmistakable, and this is a film that insists on its own cinephilia: it is set partly in a flat positioned over a magnificent but sadly almost empty movie theatre. Floods from the bathroom come dripping down on the baffled, indignant customers below.
It is a tremendous sensory experience, but at the risk of heresy, I have to confess to finding something a bit precious in its swooniness, a tonal register that is detectable despite, or because of, the periodic stabs of unsentimentality and brutality that function as alibis for the charge of escapism.
There are reverent homages to James Whale’s Frankenstein and Steven Spielberg’s ET, and maybe even Ron Howard’s Splash. Yet The Shape of Water does not quite have their unselfconscious power or fun, for all its magnificent fervour. Intriguingly, it has a brilliant pastiche of a golden age song-and-dance routine that surely owes something to Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein, but it’s hard to tell if the resemblance is conscious, subconscious or accidental.
Sally Hawkins gives a career-best performance with her sly, sensual, vulnerable portrayal of Elisa, a mute woman employed as a cleaner in a military research facility in Baltimore. The date would appear to be 1963 – one character talks about the battle of Pusan of 1950 being 13 years ago, and Kennedy’s voice is audible on the radio at one stage. It is the beginning of the space race and the cold war, with bigotry and conformism all around. The period detail is eerily rendered, but this is a knight’s-move away from the real world, more like 1963 Baltimore on a twin planet Earth on the other side of the galaxy.
Elisa shares her apartment with Giles (Richard Jenkins) a commercial artist and a gentle, shy, gay man. The homophobia of the era has forced him into the closet and turned him into a melancholy, professionally frustrated alcoholic. At work, Elisa’s best friend is Zelda (an exuberant performance from Octavia Spencer). The two swab and mop their way around endless underground corridors, labs and men’s lavatories, and witness the facility’s extraordinary top-secret acquisition: an amphibious creature, half-man, half-lizard, which the top brass have shipped over from Brazil and intend to use for sinister experimental purposes. In charge of this creature is a buttoned-up apparatchik and all-round sexist, racist creep called Strickland (a somewhat familiar role for Michael Shannon), and a sensitive scientist, Dr Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg). Elisa conceives a fascination for the creature, and plays it music late at night when everyone else in the lab has gone home. She alone makes the discovery that it can communicate, and slowly but surely the two fall in love.
The Shape of Water is a deep dive into a dream state, like a two-hour episode of The Twilight Zone written by Puccini. Sex is on this film’s mind. Elisa likes to masturbate in the bath, an activity regulated by an egg timer to fit it into her day, though when her relationship with the creature takes its ultimate course, we do not actually see the act itself. Elisa has to mime to a dumbstruck Zelda the next morning that her scaly new love is not, as he appears, flat-fronted down there, but rather there is an aperture from which an organ is extruded. It sounds implausible and ridiculous, but no more so than heterosexual sex between humans. When Strickland has sex with his wife, it is a harsh, proprietorial, unromantic business. He is a nasty piece of work, and it is a satisfying moment when Elisa signs an insult at him, her face incandescent with contempt.
The Shape of Water is probably Del Toro’s best film so far: I think it is better and more fully realised than his much-admired Pan’s Labyrinth, better also than his supernatural mystery Crimson Peak, which was hugely underrated. I don’t think I am a full-scale Del Toro believer, but no one can doubt his film-making’s richness, savour and force. It is immersive cinema.