A mystical tale of fish and fingers.

With perfect timing after scooping 13 Oscar nominations, “The Shape of Water” arrives for preview screenings in the UK. Is it worth all the hype?

Well, in a word, yes.  

Not since Spielberg entranced the world in 1982 with a love story between an isolated and lonely child and an alien, stranded a million light-years from home, have we seen a magical fairy-tale so well told. 

Cleaning up at the (box) office. Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones as the creature.

Here Lewisham’s own Sally Hawkins (“Paddington”, “Godzilla“) plays Elisa Esposito, an attractive but mousy mute living above a cinema and next door to her best friend: a struggling artist called Giles (Richard Jenkins). Sexually-frustrated, Elisa works out those tensions in the bath every morning before heading off to work as a cleaner at a government research institute. Together with partner Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer, “Hidden Figures“) she is asked to clean a highly secured room where a mysterious aquatic creature is being studied by the cruel and militaristic Strickland (Michael Shannon, “Midnight Special“, “Nocturnal Animals“) and the more compassionate scientist Hoffstetler. (The latter is played by Michael Stuhlbarg (“Miss Sloane“, “Steve Jobs“) in a performance that wasn’t recognised by the Academy, but for me really held the film’s story together). Elisa forms a relationship with the creature, and as the scientific investigations turn darker, she becomes determined to help him. 

When you think about it, the similarities in the screenplay with E.T. are quite striking. But this is most definitely not a kid’s film, containing full frontal nudity, sex and some considerable violence, some of it “hands-over-the-eyes” worthy. Most of this violence comes courtesy of Shannon’s character, who is truly monstrous. He is uncontrollably vicious, single-minded and amoral: a hand over the mouth to silence his wife during vigourous sex cleverly belies where his true lust currently lies. (Shannon is just so convincing in all of his roles that, after “Nocturnal Animals“, it is a bit of a surprise to see that he is still alive and well!)

It’s worth pointing out for balance at this point that my wife thought this portrayal was over-egged for its villany, and she rated the film less highly than I did because of it.

Michael Shannon as evil incarnate.

So its no Oscar nomination this time for Shannon as a supporting actor. But that honour goes to Richard Jenkins, who is spectacularly good as the movie-musical-loving and pie-munching neighbour who is drawn unwillingly into Elisa’s plans. Giles is a richly fashioned character – also the film’s narrator – who struggles to fit in with the cruel and rascist 1962 world that he finds himself in. “Sometimes I think I was born too early or too late for my life” he bemoans to the creature whose loneliness he relates to. A scene in a cafe where he fastidiously wipes all traces of pie-filling from his tongue is masterfully done.  

Richard Hawkins and Sally Hawkins, hatching a plan.

Octavia Spencer is also Oscar nominated for Best Supporting Actress, and it’s a magical partnership she shares with Hawkins, with each bouncing off each other wonderfully.

This leads to a ‘no brainer’ Oscar nomination for Sally Hawkins who delivers a star turn. She has to go through such a huge range of emotions in this film, and she genuinely makes you really care about the outcome like few films this year. It’s a little tricky since I haven’t seen “I Tonya” or “Ladybird” yet, but I would have thought that Ms Hawkins is going to possibly give Frances McDormand the closest run for her money on March 4th. My money would still be on McDormand for “3 Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri“, but the Oscar voters are bound to love “The Shape of Water”. For like “La La Land” last year, the film is (rather surprisingly for me) another love letter to Hollywood’s golden years, with Elisa and Giles living out their lives with classic movie music and dance numbers: a medium that Elisa only ever truly finds here “voice” through.

Eliza and Zelda about to give two fingers to the establishment.

In the technical categories the Oscar nominations were for Cinematography (Dan Laustsen); Film Editing (Sidney Wolinsky); Sound Editing (Nathan Robitaille and Nelson Ferreira); Sound Mixing (Glen Gauthier, Christian Cooke and Brad Zoern); Production Design (Paul D. Austerberry, Jeffrey A. Melvin and Shane Vieau); Original Score (Alexandre Desplat) and Costume Design (Luis Sequeira). And you really wouldn’t want to bet against any of these not to win, for the film is a technical delight. Right from the dreamlike opening titles (arguably, they missed a deserved nomination here for Visual Effects), the film is gorgeous to look at, with such brilliant detail in the production design that there is interesting stuff to look at in every frame. And the film editing is extraordinary: Elisa wobbles on the bucket she’s standing on, but it’s Strickland’s butt, perched on a table, that slips off. This is a film that deserves multiple repeat viewings.

The monster feeding the monster. Nick Searcy as General Hoyt with Strickland (Michael Shannon).

An the helm is the multi-talented Guillermo del Toro (“Pacific Rim”, “Crimson Peak”) who both directed and co-wrote the exceptionally smart screenplay (with Vanessa Taylor, “Divergent”) and is nominated for both. I actually found the story to be rather predictable, as regards Elisa’s story arc, but that in no way reduced my enjoyment of the film. For the “original screenplay” is nothing if not “original”…. it’s witty, intelligent and shocking at different turns.  

The violence and sex won’t be for everyone… but this is a deep and rich movie experience that everyone who loves the movies should at least appreciate… hopefully in a dry cinema! 

Fad Rating: FFFFF.