Guillermo del Toro always brings a distinctive vision to his films, but hitherto it’s been Spanish-language titles, such as The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), that have most burnished the Mexican’s reputation. Now, more than two decades into his trailblazing big-screen career, del Toro has delivered the film he was seemingly born to make: a genre-fusing love story of extraordinary originality that is by turns ravishingly beautiful, grippingly tense and heartbreakingly romantic.
Set in 1962, in Cold War America, it stars Sally Hawkins (Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky) as Elisa Esposito, a cleaner in a Baltimore high-security government laboratory. At work, she bonds with her colleague, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and at home she drops in on her neighbour, commercial artist Giles (Richard Jenkins). Elisa doesn’t have big expectations for her own life, and perhaps that’s related to insecurity over her speech disability: she’s mute.
Elisa’s life changes forever when the laboratory becomes host to a highly classified asset, a human-like amphibian (Doug Jones), who is imprisoned in a water tank. The captured creature is in the charge of a ruthless government agent, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), whose methods are at odds with those of marine biologist Robert Hoffstetler (Call Me By Your Name’s Michael Stuhlbarg), who admires the amphibian and who is harbouring his own secret. Elisa finds herself caught up in the middle of a Cold War conflict when she forms an intimate bond with the man in the glass tank – but how far will she go for a chance at love?
The Shape Of Water was greeted with instant acclaim when it premiered in August at the Venice Film Festival, winning top prize of the Golden Lion. Talks of being an Oscar frontrunner inevitably followed, while the film earned seven Golden Globe nominations, including Best Picture Drama, Director, Screenplay, and for Hawkins, Spencer and Jenkins in their respective acting categories. Del Toro, who was nominated for an Oscar for writing Pan’s Labyrinth, now looks set for a personal breakthrough at March’s Academy Awards. Hawkins, previously Oscar-nominated for Blue Jasmine, is now a hot prospect to win major honours for a role that taps into her vast reserves of inner goodness.
Released in the UK, appropriately enough, on Valentine’s Day, The Shape Of Water is the most delirious, extraordinary and truly genre-defying film on offer this awards season. Del Toro calls water “the most powerful and malleable force in the universe”, adding, “that’s also love, isn’t it?” Don’t miss the adult fairytale that explores the answer to that question.