Writer director Guillermo del Toro brings a story that is a romance, a thriller, and a fantasy, all wrapped up in a B grade 1950/60’s Hollywood noir setting. It is beautiful to look at, and richly rewarding as a piece of cinema.
Just as with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the tone is set with a remarkable opening shot. The camera tracks under water, at first taking your eye to a big clump of seaweed. But within the seaweed is a corridor, which leads to a room, with tables and chairs floating, and then to a chaise longue, where a woman floats above it. She settles into the chair, the water drains away, and the story begins.
That woman is Eliza Esposito, played by Sally Hawkins (in a far, far cry from the other role we currently see her in, as the mother in Paddington 2). She is a mute, who shares accommodation above the Orpheum Cinema with Giles (Richard Jenkins) a struggling graphic artist. Eliza works a graveyard shift cleaning floors and toilets at a secretive government research facility.
Here she and her workmate Zelda (Octavia Spencer) come across what is described as “a sensitive asset”. It’s an aquatic humanoid creature, from the Amazon, a fish man which can breathe in and out of the water. It’s been delivered to the lab by security enforcer Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who ensures it’s kept in chains and under his brutal heel.
This all takes place during the Cold War, so US General Hoyt (Alan Searcy) decrees that if the scientists cannot find out what makes the fish man (Doug Jones) tick, it must be killed before the Soviets get their hands on it. Scientists like Dr Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) disagree, but Strickland is more than happy to oblige. It may all seem like some odd take on The Creature from the Black Lagoon.
But fish man unwittingly draws sympathy, most notably from Eliza, as so the story proceeds. It is of course a preposterous premise for a tale, but it works because it is delivered superbly by its director and actors, and because beneath its sumptuous sets and costumes is a simple and strong theme of the need for love and acceptance.
Sally Hawkins is wonderful as Eliza. She doesn’t speak, but after a while you don’t even notice. She is more than an able foil for her protagonist, the violent and domineering Strickland (an excellent Michael Shannon, as usual). And she and Doug Jones, hidden under his fish man costume, give us a truly affecting relationship. Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins shine as Eliza’s comrades in arms, and mention must be made of Michael Stuhlbarg’s Dr Hoffstetler, who becomes a hero in his own right.
The production is lavish, as its music, and the film’s colours are dark and rich. It is a visual spectacle. I found myself swept along with del Toro’s story, and was more than happy to suspend normal belief to accept its fantastical elements. Perhaps not all will do so, and the film might seem too absurd to some. But treat it as a fable, and soak it up. This film has already picked up its share of awards, particularly for del Toro as director. You’d be thinking there are more accolades to come.