4 out of 5 stars

Being one of the most interesting directors working today, a new film from Guillermo del Toro is always something to be celebrated. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) is rightly regarded as an all-time classic, but it’s been over a decade since its release, and some of del Toro’s recent output has been more variable. Pacific Rim (2013) was a lot of fun, but it’s not a great movie; and while Crimson Peak (2015) was a Gothic visual masterpiece, it left a lot to be desired in other areas. It would be unfair to call The Shape of Water a “return to form”, because del Toro’s never made an objectively bad film, but it’s certainly his most well-rounded and fully-formed release in years.

Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a pleasant but frustrated mute woman, who starts every day by furiously masturbating in the bathtub while her lunchtime eggs boil in a saucepan. She works as a cleaner for a secretive, Area-51-style facility, and it’s in the course of her rounds that she encounters a bizarre amphibious man (known as “The Asset”) being held captive for study as a potential weapon. Seeing something of herself in this strange creature, who’s equally mute and alone, Elisa forges a close bond with him, but she has tough decisions to make with the army – led by an imposing Michael Shannon – wanting to vivisect her new friend…

The Shape of Water adds a healthy romantic element to del Toro’s usual sensibilities, deftly melding fairy tale storytelling with horror aesthetics and a wry sense of humour. It would actually make for a wonderful children’s film… were it not for the swearing, grisly bursts of violence, and frequent nudity from a very game Hawkins.

The film’s exquisite fantasy opening takes us through a submerged apartment, where a serene sleeping princess floats amid various items of furniture, before everything begins to lose its buoyancy, and as the objects descend to the floor, so we descend seamlessly with them into the real world—Elisa asleep on the sofa in her very-much not underwater flat, everything again bound by gravity. It’s a gorgeous sequence; as offbeat and enchanting a prologue as you’re ever likely to see.

Del Toro’s film is hugely reverent of, and indebted to, classic cinema, so it’s no coincidence Elisa lives above a theatre. From the costumes, to the silent movie-style protagonist (with her penchant for tap dance as a form of expression), to Alexandre Desplat’s sumptuous and deliberate score, The Shape of Water’s a movie that feels timeless in the way of all classics.

In Hawkins, del Toro has found the perfect lead actress. Her expressive and empathetic performance is sublime, and she completely sells Elisa’s warmth and loneliness, her timidity and ferocity, and her love for a being that isn’t even human. The concept might sound silly on paper (a woman falls in love with the Creature From the Black Lagoon), but Hawkins and del Toro’s regular ‘monster man’ Doug Jones make for a winning if unconventional couple.

The problem, though, is that their romance, and by extension the film itself, needed another gear. As convincing and affecting as their love story is, and as thrilling as Michael Shannon’s pursuit of them becomes, the narrative progresses in a rather pedestrian manner. There are very few surprises, but the screenplay feels condensed and lacks another level to take everything above and beyond all expectations. What’s there is practically faultless, but you can’t help wishing there was a little bit more to the tale.

Still, if the story lacks an extra spark of genius, it nevertheless boasts some wonderful flights of fancy to keep audiences spellbound. The highlight is a song-and-dance number with Elisa and her beau. It’s an outpouring of sheer joy that can’t help but delight, if only for the gloriously incongruous visual of the amphibious man turning into Fred Astaire.

The support cast are also hugely entertaining; whether it’s Richard Jenkins as Elisa’s amiable homosexual friend and neighbour, or Octavia Spencer’s motor-mouthed work colleague. Michael Stulhlbarg is solid as a senior researcher at the facility with secrets of his own, and Shannon plays the story’s true monster with the unhinged intensity that’s become his trademark.

All of the characters that band together to help the creature are outsiders themselves: a mute, a black lady, a homosexual. While they’re not poked and prodded as literally as the amphibious man, they know what it’s like to be the ‘other’ in a world dominated by straight white humans. The film’s principal message is one of tolerance, and it’s delivered clearly without bashing audiences over the head.

The Shape of Water is a truly beautiful film. The production design of whimsical clutter and 1950s fashion can’t help but evoke the mise en scène of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s oeuvre, with Dan Lausten’s cinematography a thing of aquamarine splendour. Wonderfully quirky, this is an utterly beguiling romantic fairy tale, with enough genre elements to appeal to those who might ordinarily scoff at such a description. Perhaps that’s del Toro’s greatest achievement here: crafting a film that will appeal equally to hopeless romantics and creature feature fanboys. Nobody makes movies quite like Guillermo del Toro, and this is him at his luxurious best. It’s a pure cinematic delight.

Cast & Crew

director: Guillermo del Toro.
writers: Guillermo del Toro & Vanessa Taylor (story by Guillermo del Toro).
starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg & Octavia Spencer.