All for the love of a gentle monster

Shapeofwater
I see you: Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) opposite the creature (Doug Jones). Photograph courtesy www.indiewire.com

YOU MIGHT SIT there in the auditorium watching Guillermo del Toro’s film The Shape of Water, and quietly begin to think you’ve stepped into a time-zone. This beautifully crafted fantasy love story is like a rendition of 1950s schlock horror tradition ramped up all the way. It’s a delight to watch from beginning to end and contains all the fabulously one-dimensional stereotypes that leave you in no doubt as to who the good guys and the baddies are.

Set in the early 1960s in the mad little heart of the Cold War, the piece presents the American guys opposite the Russians in a quest for scientific advancement. At the heart of all of it, is a kind of amphibious beast with an utterly beautiful texture and a guileless face. Played by Doug Jones, he’s the quintessential colonialist’s dream: exotic and unknown, he’s kept as a government secret and both sides want to do a spot of vivisection to see what he’s made of.

That is, until Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) discovers him.

Endowed with a peculiarly self-deprecating physicality, fitting a mute, damaged and introverted young woman who is almost completely alone, and works a strange routine, where her job, alongside her pal Zelda (Octavia Spencer) is to clean the latrines of the facility, Elisa is the “Fay Wray” in this quirky love story. And it will wring your heart in the finest of ways.

There follows a delicious tale of discovery and boiled eggs, of explicit white male malevolence, homophobia and racism, and a rip-roaring adventure which sees rotten fingers tossed on the lounge carpet, a smashed up teal Cadillac which will make you roar with schadenfreude and some monster sex, not to mention the seductive use of Glenn Miller’s wonderful swing standard I know why. Oh, and water, there’s lots of water.

It’s as poetic an extrapolation of the genre as you can imagine and the sentiments sing with the kind of monster narrative that saw Wray in the arms of King Kong more than 80 years ago, and left audience members weeping. Replete with the dark green Art Deco tiles on the walls everywhere, and the insane nuances of Hawkins with her other friend in all the world, Giles (Richard Jenkins) a gay graphic designer who mourns his lost hair, the work is completely delicious, offering as it does, insight into the complexities of Cold War society with all its crude and petty races for new technology, and its deep biases and tendency toward social violence.

Featuring a lovely little cameo with Michael Stuhlbarg (of A Serious Man fame), as the Russian Dr Robert Hoffstetler, aka “Dimitri”, who recognises the ability of the monster to communicate and indeed to love, it’s the kind of film that will leave your heart dancing with a mix of nostalgia for comics and how stories were told, and a love of the underdog monster who is neglected or ousted by social etiquette.

  • The Shape of Water is directed by Guillermo del Toro and features a cast headed by Evgeny Akimov, Stewart Arnott, Nigel Bennett, Shaila D’Onofrio, Madison Ferguson, Deney Forrest, Diego Fuentes, Allegra Fulton, Karen Glave, Jayden Greig, Jonelle Gunderson, Sally Hawkins, David Hewlett, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, John Kapelos, Marvin Kaye, Morgan Kelly, Cameron Laurie, Dan Lett, Wendy Lyon, Brandon McKnight, Sergey Nikonov, Vanessa Oude-Reimerink, Alexey Pankratov, Martin Roach, Nick Searcy, Michael Shannon, Lauren Lee Smith, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Cody Ray Thompson, Edward Tracz, Dru Viergever, Danny Waugh and Clyde Whitham. Featuring a screenplay by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, it is produced by J Miles Dale and Guillermo del Toro and features creative input by Alexandre Desplat (music), Dan Laustsen (cinematography), Sidney Wolinsky (editing), Robin D Cook (casting), Paul D Austerberry (production design) and Luis Sequiera (costumes). Release date: January 19 2018.

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Robyn Sassen

A freelance arts writer since 1998, I fell in love with the theatre as a toddler, proved rubbish as a ballerina: my starring role was as Mrs Pussy in Noddy as a seven-year-old, and earned my stripes as an academic in Fine Arts and Art History, in subsequent years. I write for a range of online and print publications, including the Sunday Times, the Mail & Guardian and artslink.co.za and was formerly the arts editor of the SA Jewish Report, a weekly newspaper with which I was associated for 16 years. This blog promises you new stories every week, be they reviews, profiles, news stories or features.

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