Guillermo del Toro has returned to cinemas with a love story. You read that correctly - del Toro, known for genre films such as Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak, has co-written and directed an old-fashioned love story with a few new wrinkles. His latest, The Shape of Water, is a tale of pure love between a mute woman and an amphibian man. It sounds crazy (and weird), but del Toro eliminates pretension by presenting a feature that speaks of accepting others as they are, regardless of their backgrounds, who they are, or what they look like.

Co-written by Vanessa Taylor (Hope Springs, Divergent), Shape focuses on Elisa Esposito (the wonderful Sally Hawkins), a nighttime janitor at a secretive ocean research facility. Elisa lives alone and cannot speak due to a childhood accident. She meets a creature (Doug Jones) recently brought in from South America and they connect. The creature is considered a highly-coveted asset by both the U.S. and Soviet governments, and the man entrusted to “protect” the creature from outside harm, Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), only wants to research and kill it. That, in addition to her growing fondness of him, is enough for Elisa to free him from his captivity. Of course, their relationship intensifies, but lingering in the background is Richard, determined to recapture the creature.

Normally, a concept like this should fail on every level. I doubt many would want to see two different species become a romantic couple. It reeks of bestiality, but del Toro presents both Elisa and Amphibian Man (as it’s credited) as lost souls who bond over their differences. Since attraction depends on looks, del Toro asks audiences to work past exteriors. Elisa and Amphibian Man do just that, especially since they cannot communicate vocally. Sign language, body language and gestures allow them to learn from each other, appreciate each other and then finally fall for each other. Most relationships thrive with this as the foundation, whereas ones based only on looks are fickle and flame out.

Typically, a del Toro production is visually stunning, and The Shape of Water is no exception. It has the look and feel of a classic Hollywood film, which makes sense since it’s set during the 1960s Cold War era. The film’s look and tone speaks of grim times, but there is still a modicum of beauty and hope. In addition, Academy Award winner Alexandre Desplat (The Grand Budapest Hotel) provided a beautiful score which harkens back to that time while also highlighting a glorious film era. From a technical standpoint, The Shape of Water is another achievement, and it propels a simple love story into something more substantial.

I believe much of this film’s appeal comes from the melding of genres - we have a love story which includes a creature who looks uncannily like Abe Sapien (also played by Doug Jones) from Hellboy. With its focus on acceptance, Shape speaks towards racism and homosexuality in ways that still ring true today. Finally, del Toro pays homage to classic cinema with a scene which takes place inside one. A project which includes so many topical issues shouldn’t work, but given that seemingly anything and everything can happen nowadays, a woman-fish love dynamic isn’t as crazy is it initially seems.

Before I forget, there are a myriad of strong performances. Hawkins puts forth an award-worthy turn since, as a mute, she has to convey her thoughts and emotions physically. She's memorable, convincing and even adorable. Shannon, with eyes that could bend metal, comes with a palpable intensity that isn’t campy. Richard is creepy, especially during one scene that screams of the #MeToo movement. Octavia Spencer plays Zelda, Eliza’s co-worker and friend, and she, along with Richard Jenkins (as closet artist Giles), serve as voices of reason for the lovable mute. Spencer continues her run of strong performances that are as much outspoken as they are endearing – she’s the tough mother with a pleasing soft side. Jenkins is more of a support system for Elisa, but he comes with his own personal demons which makes him another outcast looking for acceptance.

I don’t think The Shape of Water is for everyone. Even though it’s a common tale it’s progressive enough to alienate certain viewers, possibly even offend. But its message is universal and attached to one of the most beautifully realized concepts this year. Cinephiles will easily understand this is a passion project for del Toro, while casual filmgoers will understand this was made with pride and care. If you’re accepting of the love story then this may be one of the year’s best offerings. But if the unusual pairing is too out there then this is a clear failure. For me, this is del Toro’s best since Pan’s Labyrinth, but it lacks the necessary emotion to propel it to true classic status.

4 stars out of 5

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