A secret lies inside every fairytale and monster fable, whispering to those who dare to enter. It's an obvious one, though it's not always fully appreciated. As we wade through narratives about dark forces and strange, enchanting creatures, it's not just their fantastical or fright-inducing aspects that enthrall us; it's also the fact that they beat with a warm human heart. Like Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker and countless other storytellers before him, filmmaker Guillermo del Toro knows this — and he's eager to prove it every chance he gets. Since taking on the undead in his quietly unnerving debut Cronos more than two decades ago, the Mexican writer-director has approached his gothic tales with empathy and curiosity. His films might be filled with bugs, ghosts, vampires, beasts and kaiju, but at their core they ponder what it means to be alive.
Accordingly, when Pan's Labyrinth follows a young girl as she plunges into a mysterious garden underworld, del Toro charts the relatable need to explore, connect and fight back in trying circumstances. Likewise, when The Shape of Water brings together a mute woman and a man-like amphibian against the backdrop of Cold War-era USA, he spins a story about the power of love and the resilience of outsiders searching for a place to belong. As often seen in the director's work, the enemy here isn't the monster, but rather the idea of judging something just because it's different.
A moving horror-romance that splashes its devotion across every gorgeous teal and butterscotch-hued frame, The Shape of Water swims into the realm of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins). When she's not working nights cleaning at a government facility with her chattering colleague Zelda (Octavia Spencer), she finds company with her lonely artist neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) and comfort in her daily routine. But things change when security operative Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) marches into her life, along with the water-dwelling being (Doug Jones) he's brought back from the Amazon. While everyone else is fearful, cruel or primarily interested for scientific reasons (such as Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, played by Michael Stuhlbarg), Elisa finds a kindred soul in the captured creature.
The idea of outcasts finding solace in each other's arms is hardly new, but while del Toro's movie seems to dive into busy waters, he's really wading through a stream all of his own. In the crowded field of monster flicks, The Shape of Water cherishes and celebrates its big-hearted heroine and her aquatic companion with love and care, ensuring every emotion they express also washes over the audience. Equally vivid and violent as it jumps between matters of the heart and moments of espionage, the film entrances with its sweet, soulful, delicate approach while never shying away from weighty themes of persecution or oppression (and at the same time, it remains remarkably light on its feet). In short, it's a whirlpool of intensely felt, vibrantly realised wonder — one that's both frothy on the surface, and dark and deep underneath.
A sea of perfectly assembled elements, The Shape of Water truly feels like a film that no one else could have made. Working from a script co-written with Vanessa Taylor (Divergent), del Toro is operating at the top of his game, and his fingerprints can be seen in every exquisitely detailed image. With its stylistic odes to both creature features and the Golden Age of Hollywood, succumbing to the movie's seductive visual charms is easy. Falling for the sensitive way in which it handles its underwater lovers is as well. Assisting in that department, Hawkins and Jones couldn't be better, fashioning their performances out of glances, movements and the things that words just can't say. Often they're floating, either literally or emotionally. Thanks to the story's depths of affection and acceptance, so is the audience.