Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro recaptures the visual splendour and simmering menace of his Oscar-winning 2006 fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth with a swoon-inducing reimagining of the Beauty And The Beast fairy tale set in 1962 Baltimore.
The Shape Of Water is a gorgeous, erotically-charged love story, which empowers its richly drawn female characters to drive forward a tightly wound narrative and defeat prejudice in its myriad ugly forms.
The script, co-written by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, doesn’t sugar coat the central romance between a mute cleaning lady and a carnivorous merman.
Carnal desires of the spirited heroine are laid delightfully bare in virtually the opening scene in which she slides into an overflowing bath and pleasures herself in the two minutes it takes to hard boil three eggs for her packed lunch.
Lustrous period detail evokes an era of suffocating Cold War paranoia with aplomb, reflected in snappy dialogue like when one kind-hearted scientist argues that it would be unconscionable to vivisect any creature capable of understanding and emotions.
“So are the Soviets – and we still kill them, don’t we?” coldly retorts a US soldier.
The story’s “princess without a voice” is Elisa (Sally Hawkins).
She works as a cleaner alongside sharp-tongued pal Zelda (Octavia Spencer) at Occam Aerospace Research Centre, a top-secret US government site where scientist Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) conducts experiments to propel America ahead of the Soviet Union in the space race.
Cleaning supervisor Fleming (David Hewlett) calls together staff to relate exciting news about the arrival of “the most sensitive asset ever to be housed in this facility”.
Soon after, Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) shepherds a large metal container into one of the laboratories.
Inside is a beguiling aquatic creature (Doug Jones), which Strickland boasts he “dragged out of the river muck in South America”.
Elisa becomes emotionally attached to the merman, using sign language and music as a crude yet effective form of communication.
They eventually fall in love and the cleaner hatches a hare-brained plan to smuggle her web-footed paramour out of the facility so he can be returned to the wild.
“It is not even human,” argues scaredy-cat neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins).
“If we don’t do something,” furious signs Elisa, “neither are we.”
The Shape Of Water delivers on the dizzying promise of 13 Oscar and 12 Bafta nominations, conjuring an intoxicating spell through mesmerising performances, sharp writing and del Toro’s directorial daring.
Hawkins is luminous and heartbreaking, speaking volumes without saying a word – save for a musical fantasy sequence that choreographs a romantic pas de deux reminiscent of yesteryear’s La La Land.
Sparing graphic violence punctuates the inter-species amour.
Everyone is expendable in del Toro’s haunting fable, including at least one unsuspecting household pet that loses its head in lurid close-up. Me-ouch.