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Guillermo del Toro is truly a jack of all trades, with his films running the gamut from the Eldritch horrors ass-kicking in his Hellboy series to the absolute beauty and vision of Pan's Labyrinth. But no matter what film of his you choose to watch, there's one thing that's always present at the center of it all: a big, beating heart. The Shape of Water probably proves this point at its finest, as del Toro lightly jumps genres throughout the film, allowing several different stories to play out at once, but centering in on the love between a woman and the sea creature she loves. It's gorgeous, it's heartfelt, and it's quite possibly Guillermo del Toro's finest film yet.
Elisa (Sally Hawkins) leads a low-key, invisible life as a cleaning lady in a government facility. Life's set into a pretty strong pattern of anonymity, until the day she meets a creature that's being studied in said lab (Doug Jones). Their introduction is by chance, but their relationship blooms, despite top secret restrictions, and a rather severe enforcer keeping a tight grip on the creature (Michael Shannon). If they'll have even a fighting chance to be free, they'll need some resourceful friends, and a lot of courage.
The first thing an audience will pick up on when entering The Shape of Water is how visually delicious this film is. With lush colors, sharp 60's set design, and photography that loves every corner of the frame, del Toro shows us a world that's historically familiar, but vibrant enough to convey the adult fairy tale atmosphere he's reaching for. But while this is a fairy tale, Guillermo del Toro is definitely angling for an old school sort of vibe, as there's blood, sex, and violence added in good measure. These aspects don't dilute the film, rather they root it in an adult nature that's more practical than most fairy tales, walking the line between grounded reality and fanciful excitement.
But, of course, all of that is nothing if the performances are dull, and I'm glad to say that The Shape of Water is one of the strongest ensembles I've seen in quite some time. Supporting characters played by Shannon, as well as Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, and Michael Stuhlbarg all have their moments to shine as individual characters. And when they get those moments, they are as powerful as the central love story between Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones. Make no mistake though, it's that pair that are truly the MVPs of this film. The love between Elisa and the unnamed creature is a silent one, spoken through sign language and visual cues. And yet, you completely forget the absence of speech, as they convey everything perfectly through finely tuned body language. If you weren't convinced that any of the prominently featured actors in The Shape of Water are some of the most underrated actors currently practicing, you'll definitely know after watching this film.
If you really wanted to, you could tuck yourself in for The Shape of Water and let the film tell you one of the best adult bedtime stories you've ever heard. With a poetry and rhythm that flows as strong as the currents of the world, Guillermo del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor has brought us another film that pays homage to classic Hollywood, while existing firmly in a modern frame of mind. It's a story of romance crossing boundaries, of the outsiders teaming up to defeat the status quo, and of the true beauty of life available to all, so long as they choose to see it. This is the most beautiful film of the year, both in body and spirit, and it is not to be missed.