An other-worldly fairy tale, set against the backdrop of Cold War era America circa 1962. In the hidden high-security government laboratory where she works, lonely Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is trapped in a life of isolation and has only artist Giles (Richard Jenkins) for company. However, her life is utterly changed when she meets a creature of unknown origin and begins to slowly fall for him...
Guillermo Del Toro's films are often made without any kind of irony, often relying on a certain expectation that the audience can accept his work with all its earnestness intact. For the likes of Pacific Rim, it's giant monsters battling skyscraper-sized robots. For Pan's Labyrinth, it's a children's fairytale. With The Shape Of Water, it's another fairytale and opens with the great Richard Jenkins telling of a land ruled by a fair prince, a princess with no voice who falls in love, and a monster who wants to destroy all happiness. It immediately offers up a different world, and if you take the ride and go along with it, it's a truly satisfying experience.
Sally Hawkins play the mute Eliza, who lives a relatively lonely existence with the aforementioned Richard Jenkins, a gay artist who ekes out a living as a painter of advertising artwork when the world wants photographs instead. Hawkins' character works as a cleaner in a secret research laboratory, ran by the fastidious Michael Stuhlbarg and the authoritarian Michael Shannon, which houses a striking creature not entirely unlike the Creature of the Black Lagoon. While it might seem a little convenient and trite that Hawkins' character immediately strikes up a relationship with the unnamed "Asset", the film goes to great length to display both the depth of feeling that she has and the yearning she has to be accepted and loved. Really, that's what the film is about - acceptance and love, no matter what it looks like to anyone else.
Jenkins, as always, gives a measured and authentic performance and is able to so convincingly play someone who just wants to be accepted for what he is. There's a brilliant scene, later in the film, where Jenkins so succinctly sums up his character in almost one sentence. Stuhlbarg, as well, has a scene where his character is narrowed down into one line of dialogue, and while that might seem reductive, it's really just to illustrate how cleanly made this film is. The real star of the film is, of course, Sally Hawkins who gives a career-best performance as Eliza. Even without spoken word, her character beams out joy and happiness whenever it's required, completely enthralling the audience throughout. Doug Jones, who plays the creature, doesn't have that much in the way of development, but it's more that he's a symbol for innocence. If there is a weak link in the cast, it's with Michael Shannon, who plays the role of villain like he's in a pantomime.
That, however, is the trick of The Shape Of Water. Guillermo Del Toro and Vanessa Taylor's screenplay removes any kind of subtlety in favour of something sincere and without cynicism, and it's really a case of whether you can get on board with it. Del Toro's work can never be accused of being world-weary; it pushes itself to be as captivating and romantic as it can be and while it doesn't work all the time - Crimson Peak being a recent example - it absolutely works here, because of the strong performances that anchors it. The cinematography by Dan Laustsen is absolutely sumptuous, and Alexandre Desplat's swirling, waltzing score just adds to the fairytale romance of it all. In spite of all this, the only complaint with The Shape Of Water is that it wraps itself up in a bow too quickly, and does follow a predictable enough narrative. Then again, who cares when it's this gorgeous?
By equal parts weird, romantic, earnest and beautiful, The Shape Of Water is Guillermo Del Toro's best film to date.