A film weighted down with expectation following wins for best film and director at the 2018 Oscars.
This is another dark fairy tale from director Guillermo del Toro, with a subject matter most studio heads would have rejected before the story pitch even started.
The film is set in the paranoid cold war period in the 1950’s, with the US pitched against Russia, whose agents are hiding metaphorically under every bed or in this case, in their top secret laboratories.
“Lisa Esposito” (Sally Hawkins) is a cleaner at the aforementioned laboratory, she mops up sick, blood and urine with her good friend “Zelda” (Octavia Spencer). Zelda has a deadbeat husband but remains positive, helped by a healthy dose of world weary cynicism.
When cleaning aforementioned secretions, plus in this case some severed digits, Esposito encounters a strange amphibian creature being held captive in the laboratory (Doug Jones).
Despite being “dumb”, Esposito is able to communicate via sign language with the creature and a tender relationship is formed. This is juxtaposed by the brutal treatment meted out by the pantomime villain of the story, “Richard Strickland” (Michael Shannon). Armed with an electric cattle prod, Shannon portrays yet another character with no redeeming traits.
Encouraged by the military brass, who ultimately see no point in keeping the creature alive, bad stuff is planned. This provides an opportunity for a spy to expose themselves and help Esposito with a ramshackle escape.
A further quite touching relationship is also sketched out with a platonic friendship between Eposito and her “not quite out” neighbour “Giles” (Richard Jenkins), as he pines after the local pie shop counterman.
This is another dreamlike film from Del Toro who as usual, dips in and out of horror territory to tell his dark fable. At times distinctly odd and on occasion the delicate story is in danger of collapsing on itself. However, it remains just the right side of “believable”, in the usual crazy Del Toro way.
Hawkins is always watchable, managing to convey whole lines of dialogue with just one look, her angry scene with “Giles” is especially touching. Spencer adds a high level of sass and common sense, helping to cover up all the implausibilities.
Strickland is a borderline psycho, a seething mixture of sexual frustration, blind patriotism, ambition and religious dogma, a lethal combination. Whilst Shannon plays these parts frighteningly well, he is in danger of becoming typecast.
The film is set against a backdrop of 1950’s America with Russian cold war paranoia, homophobia and casual racism all in place. One must assume this is hardly accidental, with the director arguably highlighting how much has “changed” in 2018……
An interesting watch which will not be to all audience tastes but a welcome departure from the recent steady diet of comic superheroes. A film that dares to be different, very different.
Think “Pan’s Labryinth” but with an amphibian/human love story at the beating heart of the film and you will get the general idea.
Weird and fantastical, with excellent acting and production values, a typical Del Toro movie then.
Worthy of Oscar’s film of the year – you decide.