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The Shape Of Water Is Guillermo del Toro’s Finest Hour

Shape of Water

For over two decades, Guillermo del Toro has made good genre films (Blade II, Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak) that work better when he’s talking about them than when you’re actually watching them.

In spite of his undeniable imagination and rigour, del Toro sometimes falls victim to careless pacing and an over-reliance on Hollywood convention. However, a higher level of accomplishment always seemed within reach. With The Shape of Water, he finally achieves that elusive breakthrough, exceeding even his most grandiose promises—and delivering a rare genre film with the weight of great drama.

the shape of water

At an American government laboratory in 1963, Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a janitor, who also happens to be mute. When a mysterious creature (Doug Jones) arrives at this facility submerged in a tank of water, she is instantly intrigued. Over time, Elisa’s curiosity grows into something closer to love, but to her great shock and concern, she discovers that this creature is being abused by the vicious Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon). Realizing the instability of this situation, Elisa conceives a plan to set him free—with the help of her neighbor (Richard Jenkins), a fellow janitor (Octavia Spencer), and a good-hearted scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg).

Working in collaboration with screenwriter Vanessa Taylor, del Toro has created a vivid fantasy 1963 that inventively merges iconic fictions (the monster is straight out of Creature from the Black Lagoon) and realities from the period. As in his earlier films, del Toro’s storytelling relies heavily on simple binaries (innocence vs. corruption, victims vs. villains, etc.), but that strategy is far more effective this time around. In fact, the child-like wonder of Elisa and her relationship with the creature derives much of its impact from its stark contrast to the unfeeling cruelty of Strickland.

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While just about everything in this film works—the cast is uniformly stellar, the narrative unfolds with expert precision—its greatest triumph is the central romance. Rather than judge or make light of this provocative mingling of species, del Toro takes it completely seriously, finding universal resonance in a taboo-busting bond.

This is particularly evident in the film’s high point: an out-there, genre-bending musical number that serves as a potent metaphor for love and the way it liberates people from their defining restrictions. You may find yourself swelling with classic Hollywood emotion, but you’ve never seen anything like this before.

The Shape of Water arrives in theatres December 7. Read our interview with del Toro, and then check out the trailer below.

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