You know how it goes. Boy meets girl, and, after a series of kooky misunderstandings and miscommunications, boy and girl fall for each other. Life, inevitably gets in the way, and it looks for a while like our lovers are destined not to be. Maybe they will though, and it'll be a Happily Ever After for both. Or maybe they won't, and this is going to be one of those bittersweet romances like Orpheus and Eurydice, or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It's a story as old as stories themselves. Except this time, the 'boy' is a fish-man; a cross between the Creature From the Black Lagoon and Abe Sapien from Hellboy. And who better than the director of Hellboy to tell it?
This is hardly Guillermo del Toro's first time playing in such a ballpark, and The Shape of Water feels like the work of a director at the top of his game – the mid-sized budget and non-blockbuster story presumably allowing it to fly (or swim) under the radar of meddling producers. It feels like del Toro, through and through, in its imagery, themes and characters - the perfect distillation of a late Guillermo del Toro movie.
Its merman is the catalyst and the love interest, but this is Sally Hawkins' movie. Working as a low-level cleaner at a mysterious government facility, mute daydreamer Elisa encounters Amphibian Man (Doug Jones) when he is captured and brought in for experimentation by sinister G-Man Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Bonding over boiled eggs and music, Elisa and the amphibian fall in love. And so a plan is hatched to free the captive creature and start work on their happily ever after...
While Michael Shannon is on hand to ensure that the course of true love does not run smoothly, this is first and foremost a fairytale and romance – and a very sweet one, at that. The prudish and the intolerant may be turned off by the central inter-species romance, but you'd need a heart of stone not to be touched by this sweet, gentle story and its tender beating heart. It's a healthier relationship than your average Fifty Shades of Grey, founded upon mutual respect and kindred spirits in unison. Guess it really is better, down where it's wetter.
In roles where neither of them can speak, Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones do an incredible job of commanding the screen. This is doubly impressive when you have Richard Jenkins at the most adorable he's been since Bone Tomahawk, an achingly sympathetic Michael Stuhlbarg, and Michael Shannon firing on all cylinders as the film's villain. On paper, his Strickland doesn't sound like much, but del Toro and screenwriter Vanessa Taylor load him up to the hilt with weird mannerisms and affectations, and Shannon gives a typically intense, terrifying and hilarious Michael Shannon performance. Octavia Spencer, meanwhile, gets to ask what everyone else was thinking. So that's how that works, huh.
The Shape of Water is Guillermo del Toro's best film since Pan's Labyrinth. A charming, heartwarming modern fairytale with not an ounce of flotsam or jetsam, it's an idiosyncratic delight to behold.
THE SHAPE OF WATER / CERT: 15 /DIRECTOR: GUILLERMO DEL TORO / SCREENPLAY: GUILLERMO DEL TORO, VANESSA TAYLOR / STARRING: SALLY HAWKINS, DOUG JONES, MICHAEL SHANNON, RICHARD JENKINS, OCTAVIA SPENCER, MICHAEL STUHLBARG / RELEASE DATE: FEBRUARY 12TH
Expected Rating: 9 out of 10