US, 2017, 123 minutes, Colour.
Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones, David Hewlett, Nick Searcy.
Directed by Guillermo del Toro.
Has water shape? But it can be shaped by its containers. Has water a life? Depending on how you look at it, its qualities, life-giving.
There are many aspects of water in this film. But, the initial water focus is on a strange amphibian, brought from the Amazon region to a facility in the United States for examination. For those with movie memories – and Guillermo del Toro certainly has these with many illusions and quotes in this film, Shirley Temple and Bojangles dancing, Betty Grable and musicals, Alice Faye singing the Oscar-winner, You’ll Never Know – there is the 1950s Creature from the Black Lagoon.
The amphibian is brought to a facility in an American city which, to all intents and purposes, looks to have been created in a studio, the exteriors of the street, side of the local cinema, the interiors of the apartments. But this is in contrast to the facility where the amphibian is kept, military, security and laboratories, sterile corridors, a white coated staff for medical purposes, officials for experiments and, significantly for this story, the cleaners.
But, this is a story of Elisa, a mute but hearing woman who lives alone in her apartment, gets up in the morning, starts her routine, bath, sexual awareness, breakfast, bringing food to her kindly neighbour, going to work – where she is one of the cleaners, along with the benign Zelda.
British actress, Sally Hawkins, so good in such films as Happy-Go-Lucky, Blue Jasmine, and Mrs Brown in the Paddington films, is Elisa, a woman of pathos but of determination. Octavia Spencer, becoming indispensable to so many films, is Zelda.
But, the beginning of the film gives it a fable tone rather than emphasis on realism. An elderly, private and timid, commercial sketcher, Giles (Richard Jenkins) introduces us in voice-over to the story of a Princess. She is Elisa. However, he might have said this is a variation on Beauty and the Beast. And this is the interest of the co-writer and director, Guillermo del Toro. From Mexico, he has built up a reputation over the decades of creating myths and fables, including The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, as well as enjoying creating monster stories, Mimic and Pacific Rim and the Hellboy films. He is able to combine both interests in an arresting way.
In the local facility, scientists are concerned about space travel, beating the Russians into space, studying how humans can survive in space travel – and hence wanting to dissect and study the amphibian. Elisa makes friends, brings eggs, plays music, and the amphibian is able to comprehend her sign language. It is not a spoiler to say that the central part of the film is Giles and the two women spiriting the amphibian out of the facility and into the apartment.
The man in charge of the experiment is Richard Strickland, played by Michael Shannon in a very Michael Shannon kind of role, always seeming sinister, intense, short-fused…
So, the drama is the search for the amphibian, Elisa keeping him in her apartment with Giles’s help until it is time for him to go back to the sea.
There is a very emotional conclusion to this fairytale involving death and life.