After toiling with overzealous diversions like Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak in the decade since he won Oscars for Pan’s Labyrinth, Mexican fantasy film maestro Guillermo del Toro finally turns out another bona fide masterpiece in this sublime romantic fable. The Shape of Water is as much his homage to creature features and vintage Hollywood musicals as a call to arms for the oppressed minorities everywhere.
Set around an American government laboratory in the 1960s, Del Toro’s magical tale follows the facility’s mute janitor Elisa (Sally Hawkins), whose lonely life is turned upside-down when a strange amphibious man (Del Toro regular Doug Jones) – captured from the Amazon where he was worshipped as a god – arrives as a captive, potentially to be sacrificed in the US’s science race with the Soviet Union.
As the heroine communicates regularly with the creature, the two form a bond that would terrify her unhappily married but always protective co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and trouble her out-of-work and clandestinely gay neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins). When Elisa works up the courage to spirit her new lover out to safety, she also finds an aid in Michael Stuhlbarg’s sensitive scientist.
If the film comes across as a simple-minded view on human decency – helped along by its sole villain Strickland, the resentful security chief played by Michael Shannon in a menacing but deliberately one-dimensional turn – it more than offsets the broad strokes with its urgent commentaries on people’s inherent intolerance for ‘the other’, be it a matter of race, sexual orientation or physical handicap.
More than anything else, however, it is this adult fairy tale’s uninhibited embrace of love in all its euphoric glory that renders The Shape of Water such an unexpected delight. For two utterly fantastical hours, we are made to surrender our preconceptions and cheer wholeheartedly on something as outlandish as an interspecies romance. If that isn’t the magic of cinema, I don’t know what it is.
The Shape of Wateropens on February 1
Want more articles like this? Follow SCMP Film on Facebook