Guillermo del Toro is among the Best Picture Oscar hopefuls for his latest fairytale for grown-ups, weaving his now familiar tapestry of nostalgia and brutality into another charming, troubling farrago.
In his 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth, the magical-realist adventure takes place against the backdrop of the Spanish civil war, with the violence of that conflict shown in all it’s terrible detail. This time, he presents the age-old trope of a downtrodden woman, the mute Elisa Esposito, falling in love with a beast. But this beast is no prince in disguise: he’s a mysterious fish-man being experimented on in a US government facility, where Elisa works as a cleaner.
Played by the ever-brilliant Sally Hawkins, Elisa is an Amélie figure, caring for her repressed neighbour (Richard Jenkins) and generally being wonderful, despite having to mop up mysterious, possibly dangerous puddles of goop all day. The Cinderella overtones are strong. Only this is del Toro, so Elisa, the princess of the piece, is shown having a wank in the first reel. And when she falls in love with the monster… Well, they do what comes naturally to women and semi-aquatic bipeds, making hot, slimy love in various depths of submersion.
The whole thing is set in a retro-futuristic 1950s, where the Cold War is in full flow and the US government is desperate to get one over on the damned Ruskies, even if that means vivisecting an innocent swamp monster. The Russians, for their part, are just as dastardly, preferring to see it dead than benefit their enemies.
The universe Elisa and her one true love inhabit is exquisitely crafted, with Wes Anderson levels of detail in to the costumes and set design. Elisa’s squalid – if rather shabby chic – flat is all sad, cracked tiles and faded wallpaper, while the government facility is a kind of scientific Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory (indeed, in the opening scenes a chocolate factory burns down, infusing the neighbourhood with the smell of cacao, which is a nice hat tip).
It’s all filmed in rich hues of blue and brown, every surface full of detail and texture, reminiscent of del Toro’s last film Crimson Peak. The faded, period styling, alongside the exquisite underwater scenes, all floating fabrics and strands of hair, have the abstract beauty of a perfume commercial.
The story itself is a fairly straight-forward caper, in which Elisa and her neighbour plan to break the monster from its prison, and never quite lives up to the sumptuous visuals. But it stars Hawkins on the form of her life, and that alone makes it unmissable.