Alleged plagiarism aside, Guillermo del Toro's latest film The Shape of Water has received almost universal praise and with good reason. This fairytale-esque story set in the 1960s (during the Cuban Missile Crisis to be exact, not that it really deals with it), sees Elise, a mute cleaning lady played by Sally Hawkins, make contact with and eventually fall in love with a merman-like creature at a top-secret government facility where she mops the floors.
Much like Pan's Labyrinth, it's set against the backdrop of a major world conflict, in this case, a time when the Cold War was about the heat up, but the story told here is a much more personal one. A story about a woman who feels out of place, her co-conspirators, and a strange and wondrous merman fished out of the Amazon river and now incarcerated in a government facility in Baltimore. Like much of del Toro's previous work the visual design of the sets and the attention to detail is incredible. This is a magnificently well-crafted piece of cinema and it's no wonder the Academy has noticed the work that's gone into this one (13 nominations) both in terms of the craft and the vision.
The film is not just a love story, but a love letter to the time period and del Toro sprinkles the movie with references, particularly older ones as some of the characters feel a bit at odds with the times. There's even a musical number here and it feels right at home in a movie that blurs the line between our world and a more fantastic one that's just out of sight. We've already mentioned Pan's Labyrinth and it feels like The Shape of Water is a continuation of that sort of film, even if the aquatic man does bear a resemblance to Abe from the Hellboy films.
Apart from Sally Hawkins' wonderful portrayal of the mute Elise, there are other actors that also deserve special mention. Michael Shannon does a great job with the main villain, Strickland, who's view on everything from personal hygiene to what constitutes a decent man is questionable. Octavia Spencer is delightful as Elise's co-worker Zelda, and both Richard Jenkins and Michael Stuhlbarg make memorable contributions.
The Shape of Water doesn't take itself too seriously and while there are some dark moments and even some brutal ones, there are also plenty of laughs and del Toro manages to not only feature masturbation (ever so briefly) as well as one of the more awkward sex scenes we've ever witnessed (and we're not talking about cross-species stuff here, but when Strickland and his wife cater to each other's not entirely wholesome whims). There's a great balance here between more serious issues and more comedic situations, and the pace is gentle even if there are some action scenes. And it wouldn't be a del Toro film if there wasn't a bit of gore. If you recall the scene in Pan's Labyrinth with the bandage on the cheek, then you might be alarmed to know that del Toro has turned the other one and continues his special interest in perforated faces. And that's not even the worst of it.
In a time where it feels like almost every movie released has a lead-in to a potential sequel or some sort of angle to expand, it's nice to see a fully realised self-contained film like The Shape of Water. And what we really enjoyed was the restraint shown with regards to Elise's background, it's not spelled out and it is left to the audience to interpret and connect the dots.