The Shape of Water tells the story of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute lady who lives in an almost dreamlike apartment above a barely-used cinema called The Orpheum. We quickly learn everything we need to know about her in a wonderfully edited opening sequence, in which she boils eggs, masturbates in the bath, and pays a visit to her neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), all before heading off to a top secret government facility where she works as a cleaner. Giles spends most of his time alone with his cats in his apartment, paying the bills by drawing product advertisements, occasionally venturing out to buy pies from a nearby diner and lust after the young man behind the counter. Elisa's best friend and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) saves her a space in the queue for the clocking-in machine every morning, and has learned sign language so the two can chit-chat whilst carrying out their mundane job of cleaning piss up off the floor and, much to Zelda's befuddlement, the ceiling.
This is 1962 America, where the happy (and white) nuclear family is the very definition of achieving the American dream, but also where minorities are still looked down upon. It's no accident that Elisa, who rarely stops smiling even when she is treated differently for her affliction, is closest to and most comfortable around a gay man and a black woman. The arrival of a strange amphibian humanoid from a swamp in South America and the loving bond it gradually forms with Elisa represents a threat to this very American way of life, at least in the eyes of Richard Strickland, a brutish military official who caught the creature, played with sheer menace by Michael Shannon. Strickland wants to cut the creature open to learn if its abilities can be forged into some kind of weapon, and to keep it out of the hands of the Soviets. Mild-mannered scientist Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) wants to keep it alive for further study, but Strickland is given the green light by his superior.
What follows is a daring break-out and Elisa's efforts to keep the stranger hidden in her apartment. The story isn't exactly ground-breaking, and you can probably work out where the film is heading quite early on. However, The Shape of Water isn't a film about surprises and twists, but a strange tale of forbidden love to utterly immerse yourself in. Most directors would struggle to capture a sex scene between a beautiful woman and a slimy fish man with a straight face, but del Toro somehow makes the whole thing feel natural, and most importantly, incredibly beautiful. Longtime del Toro collaborator Doug Jones does some stellar physical work as the creature, forging a chemistry with Hawkins without the benefit of facial expressions or dialogue, relying on otherworldly howls and the odd bit of sign language to communicate. It warrants comparison to del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, and although it's not as good as the 2006 Oscar-winning masterpiece, it shares much of its creepy magic and vintage character design, and also reflects on a country's troubled past. It's the riskiest and best work del Toro has done since. Suck in a deep breath and take a plunge.
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones