Guillermo del Toro is a Visionary with a capital V, a madman-auteur who imagines nutty, intricate universes and populates them with magical figures both sinister and angelic -- but perhaps his greatest skill lies in getting the hell out of the way when he has a great actress before his cameras. Del Toro might have made The Shape of Water, but Sally Hawkins owns it.
It's set in the 1960s in one of those fantasy worlds that seem a slight degree removed from our own. Elisa (Hawkins) is a mute dreamer who spends her days taking care of an introverted, awkward artist (Richard Jenkins) -- their apartments are situated directly above an old picture palace, because of course -- while also doing janitorial work at a secret military lab that appears to house experimental weapons. Her best friend there, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), fills the air around the silent Elisa with her lively chitchat. One day, into their building sweeps Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), a paranoid, government agent transporting … well, some sort of lizard-man (played by del Toro regular Doug Jones) that Strickland captured down in South America. Intrigued, Elisa finds herself drawn to the creature, whose silence -- not unlike hers -- seems to mask deep swells of feeling; they're both submerged, each in their own way.
For all of del Toro's imaginative prowess, The Shape of Water is a fairly familiar story, a hybrid of oddball romances and fantastical-creature-lost-on-Earth movies -- sort of like that dream you once had where the lead character from Amelie seduced the Creature from the Black Lagoon. But del Toro can take tired ideas and make them feel new again. He invests every moment with dazzling design and otherworldly atmosphere.