Mix equal parts Amélie with Creature from the Black Lagoon and you might come up with something that resembles Guillermo del Toro’s latest film.
But to simply compare the director’s new fantasy romance with previous works would be a disservice; The Shape of Water is a stunning cinematic achievement that could have only been accomplished by the visionary filmmaker himself.
Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, a mute custodian with a job at a spooky government laboratory in 1960s Baltimore. She spends a solitary life, in between her occupation, doing the same routine recreations every day that include watching classic movies with her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) and regularly masturbating in her bathtub before work. This latter ‘activity’ points to the unapologetic and fearless sensuality the director consistently brings to his craft.
Elisa has a close friend at the lab named Zelda, portrayed by Octavia Spencer. Zelda talks a lot about her life, mostly how her husband is getting on her nerves, and Elisa is more than happy to listen, rapt with wordless attention.
One day, while the ladies are going about their normal cleaning duties, a massive water-filled container is wheeled into the facility. It contains a mysterious amphibious humanoid (longtime del Toro collaborator Doug Jones) that was captured from the jungles of South America.
Elisa is immediately fascinated by the aqua-beast and the pair strike up a friendship despite the obvious language barrier. A villain soon emerges in the form of Michael Shannon, who plays a ruthless colonel bent on harvesting the monster for scientific purposes.
Elisa hatches a plan to bust out her beloved fish-man and send him to watery freedom with a little help from her friends. Michael Stuhlbarg provides some aid as a scientist who is sympathetic to the creature’s unfortunate circumstances.
The Shape of Water’s plot is admittedly predictable but the journey to the end is a captivating and mesmerizing one. Structurally, some of the best tension occurs in the middle, leading to a somewhat muted final act. Minor issues aside, however, the film’s lush visuals and compelling performances speak volumes.
Sally Hawkins – known for great roles in Maudie, Blue Jasmine, and Happy-Go-Lucky – gives a career-topping performance here, all without uttering a word. And frequent creature performer Doug Jones, currently seen on TV’s Star Trek: Discovery, has never been better.
There is also strong support from Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer, who respectively provide much of the human empathy that grounds the story. Even Michael Shannon sinks his teeth into another juicy antagonistic role while cutting an intimidating figure on screen.
Creating atmosphere is always a major part of Guillermo del Toro’s work. His previous films like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone have signature aesthetics, and The Shape of Water is no exception. Effective production design, eerily evocative of the Cold War, matched with Dan Laustsen’s lavish cinematography make for a spectacular visual treat. And composer Alexandre Desplat’s splendid score is hauntingly stirring.
But the real beating heart of the movie is the central relationship between Elisa and the creature. Del Toro manages to convey a spellbinding tale of unconventional love that is both tragic and uplifting. Hawkins and Jones are sensational as they share a bizarrely beautiful chemistry.
In short, the film is a rare specimen – a bold and dazzling love story that also serves as a classic monster tale. The two genres rarely mix but leave it to a masterful artist like Guillermo del Toro to pull it off like no one else can.
The Shape of Water earns 4 out of 5 pieces of popcorn.
Playing at a theatre near you. Rated 14A and is 123 minutes long.