I have been looking forward to this film for ages. Guillermo del Toro is a reliably superior film-maker and the cast here: led by Sally Hawkins, Olivia Spencer and Michael Shannon is superb. That would be enough but the period setting and unusual mix of genres really piqued my interest.
And it’s simply enchanting, right from the dreamlike opening in which we see Elisa (Sally Hawkins) sleeping, floating above the couch in her flooded apartment. Her alarm rings, she wakes and we are abruptly in the “reality” of her morning routine. This opening tells us all we need to know about what is to follow: dreamy fantasy, romance, explicitly sexual without being in the least pornographic, with moments of hard, cold reality.
Sally Hawkins gives the best performance of her career as the mute Elisa: she conveys more in a look or gesture than I would have thought possible. She is shy, awkward but kind and generous, a lonely girl with two friends: Zelda (Octavia Spencer) her friend at work – they are cleaning staff in a secret government lab – and her elderly, gay neighbour, Giles (Richard Jenkins). These three, all outsiders in their own ways, come together to save the strange aquatic creature held captive in the lab.
The villain of the piece is Strickland (Michael Shannon in suitably scenery-chewing form) but he isn’t a cliched bad-guy: we get glimpses into his home life that shed some light on his cruelty and motivation.
While I think it’s primarily a romance, there are elements of cold-war thriller, elements of fantasy, and a climax strongly reminiscent of movies I loved as a child. The plot is predictable, but this isn’t a movie that’s about the plot. It’s more like something to be experienced: you enter the dream at the beginning and find what’s left of your innocence: drift through the tale like a child enraptured by a fairy story. That’s as close as I can get to explaining it. The movie’s end underlines that it’s fiction, almost a story within a story within a dream. I wasn’t sure I liked that at first but on reflection I think it’s the final element that makes the film: giving permission to wake up at the end.
Simple, genius, enchanting.