For whatever obtuse reason, a media commentator recently refereed to this as a ‘horror movie’. Perhaps he had not yet seen it, for it is nothing of the kind. What it is is an out-and-out romance – and an adorable, fantastical, heart-stopping one at that – with ‘beauty and the beast’ as sub-genre. Distinct from the hum-drum of so much mainstream cinema, Mexican writer/director Guillermo del Toro is regarded as an inventive, unique and at times surreal filmmaker, but here he has turned his imaginative muscle to telling a simple story that is as old as the hills – or the tides, as it may be. Set in the Sixties, with the Cold War at its height, a strange, aquatic creature, human in form but with fins and webbed feet and hands, has been captured and brought to a US government laboratory where it will be studied and possibly vivisected. On her dreary rounds, a mute cleaner at the facility, Elisa (an intense, fragile performance from Sally Hawkins), inadvertently makes contact with the trapped creature and a strange intimacy grows between them after she starts sharing boiled eggs with him (the eggs and Elisa’s masturbating in the bath are part of del Toro’s rich symbolism and visual foreplay). The bad guy – and he is as bad as any classic melodrama demands – is Elisa’s boss Strickland (Michael Shannon), who preaches the Old Testament and cruelly tortures the creature with an electric prod. Del Toro cut his teeth on monsters and sci-fi, but he is also a champion of children and the powerless The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth, so it is no great stretch to see the diminutive Elisa, who is literally voiceless, as his child-like heroine. Narrator Giles, Elisa’s neighbour and confidante, a cat-loving homosexual, is also a solitary, out-of-step figure, while her closest workmate Zelda (Octavia Spencer) is black with a no-hoper husband. Passionate and visceral, violent and erotic, with a wondrous last scene, del Toro’s movie confirms his soaring status.
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