In many ways The Shape of Water is a classic Guillermo Del Toro film. All the director’s hallmarks are present: it’s a fable, it’s set against a socio-political backdrop, and it’s about a monster.
That first point is worth bearing in mind. Del Toro’s films are always larger than life, and while that can work against him (Pacific Rim was too silly for many), here the broad tone helps offset the edginess of the material. And things get pretty damn edgy.
That’s where Del Toro seems to be trying something new. He’s always had a taste for cinematic violence, but his films stayed pretty chaste until 2015’s Crimson Peak. That film seems to have whet (wet) his appetite for kink, and here he really runs (swims) with it.
This is a romance between two different species, one of them a fish-man imprisoned in a government laboratory. Del Toro never sugar coats the fact that the creature (beautifully performed by Doug Jones), is bestial, as likely to bite your fingers off as he is to wordlessly woo the cleaning lady.
Sally Hawkins plays the recipient of the mer-dude’s affections, a mute woman who takes care of her neighbour, an artist portrayed by Richard Jenkins. They are fantastic, as is the rest of the cast, all reliable heavy hitters.
Michael Shannon plays, as he often does, a bureaucrat whose buttoned-down exterior masks a complete maniac. Of all the story beats his is the broadest. No prizes for guessing who turns out to be the real monster here.
The film starts out with a level of whimsy comparable to Amelie, before delving into darker waters. Racism and homophobia begin to loom, and while the parallels Del Toro is drawing will be too clunky for some, the film’s huge heart and good intentions are always on display.