Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Running Time: 123 mins
BBFC Certificate: 15
UK Release Date: February 14th 2018
Guillermo del Toro is a frustrating, baffling director at times. But boy, when he gets it right… and this loving tribute to b-movies and monster pictures of the 1960s is right up there with his considerable best.
Even his most hardcore fans would admit it’s easy to spot when his heart isn’t in a film. Pacific Rim was his attempt at a blockbuster movie, but it was as hollow as a child’s toy and had about as much longevity. Crimson Peak was a partial return to form, but still lacked heart. Here though we are firmly back in Pan’s Labyrinth and Devil’s Backbone territory. It’s beautiful, structured, detailed and very moving.
What at first appears to be a simple beauty and the beast/monster movie, crams in so many themes it’s sometimes difficult to keep up. Sally Hawkins is the mute cleaner at a 1960s centre where Michael Shannon has dragged a water-bound creature from South America – where, of course, the creature from the black lagoon came from. Shannon’s characters is basing the rest of his career on the find, promising the US Army top brass he will kill it for scientific purposes.
Slowly however Hawkins realises she can communicate with the creature through her sign language, a fact not lost on scientist Michael Stuhlbarg, who may or may not be a Russian spy. She and the monster share food and music together, but when she realises the plan is to kill the beast she hatches an escape plan, helped by her colleague (Octavia Spencer) and her gay neighbour (Richard Jenkins).
The astonishing thing is just how much detail del Toro packs in to a fairly simple structure. There is much here about prejudice – Spencer has pointed out that because the main couple are both mute the real voices heard are a black woman and a gay man, both of whom are treated appallingly in 1960s America. Jenkins’ job, as an artist for cheesy magazine ads, is becoming redundant, and his tangles with an agency recalls Mad Men at its best. Spencer, a black cleaner with a useless husband, is virtually invisible.
Then there is the titanic battle between Shannon and Hawkins. He is a bully of a man, armed with a cattle prod and a fierce temper, convinced he is doing the right thing. He is even told by a car salesman that he should own a Cadillac as he is ‘heading into the future’. Hawkins by contrast has virtually no weapons, apart from her own determination to free the one person who truly sees her. It’s an astounding performance and should be the first of many Oscars the film should land.
It goes without saying that the set design and look of the film is an absolute delight, and there are also some great jokes – Shannon asks Spencer why ‘he is asking the help’, and when Hawkins starts signing to him “F-U-C” – you can work out the rest.
Overall Verdict: If there is any justice in the world this will win all eight Oscars it is nominated for. A loving tribute to monster movies packs an enormous emotional punch – it’s simply a must-see.
Reviewer: Mike Martin