The Shape of Water is a sweet fable about two lonely souls who make a connection. That one of them happens to be a fish man is almost incidental.
This is a Guillermo del Toro film after all, and the Mexican master is a specialist when it comes to idiosyncratic genre-splicing. His homage to The Creature from the Black Lagoon is a whimsical romance and a cold-war monster movie, steeped in a passion for cinema that’s reflected in the exquisite production design and the sprinkling of vintage clips from Hollywood’s Golden Age – everything from Shirley Temple and the Land of the Pharoahs, to Mister Ed.
Its mute protagonist, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), lives above a grand old theatre in Baltimore and works the night shift as a cleaner at a secret government facility, where a mysterious new “asset” has just arrived from South America.
It’s an amphibious humanoid (resembling Hellboy‘s Abe Sapien and played by seasoned creature performer Doug Jones), and while cleaning the lab, the curious Elisa forms a bond with the beast using eggs, music and sign language.
Sadistic military man Strickland (Michael Shannon) is less empathetic; torturing the gill-man with an electrified prod and losing a couple of fingers in the process. The Russians also want to get hold of it, and when Elisa discovers her new friend is in danger, she hatches a plan to liberate the creature with the help of her neighbour (Richard Jenkins) and feisty co-worker (Octavia Spencer).
This inter-species romance reflects del Toro’s own passion for monsters – it’s a daring concept for a Hollywood film, albeit executed with such conviction, even moments that could come off as schlocky and absurd feel perfect in context.
The Shape of Water is sentimental, but it still possesses the bursts of violence and grotesquerie that are a GDT trademark, just like his meticulous eye for detail which captures the rhythm of Elisa’s daily ritual and the steampunk design of the lab. If there’s a complaint to be made, it’s that the story itself plays out exactly how you expect it to.
Pan’s Labyrinth remains del Toro’s masterpiece, and The Shape of Water runs a close second, evoking the former film’s fusion of real world drama and the fantastic, with an innocent “princess” caught in the middle and finding escape in the company of a fantasy creature.
As unconventional as an unconventional love story can be, del Toro’s bold and beautiful vision restores a sense of magic and wonder to the movies.
In cinemas: January 18, 2018
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro