While I've longed respected the career work of Pan's Labyrinth director, Guillermo del Toro, somehow his films have always failed to resonate with me. But after catching an early screening for the filmmaker's new Oscar-bound fantasy-romance, The Shape of Water, those sentiments no longer ring true. Welcome to my heart, Mr. del Toro.
Set during the early 60s, in the midst of America's tenuous Cold War with the Soviet Union, Sally Hawkins stars as Elisa, a mute cleaning lady who works alongside her chatty friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) in a high-security government laboratory. Caught in the monotony of her safe and low-key daily routine, Elisa stumbles across a new living and breathing "asset" that's been brought to the facility where she cleans. And as Elisa sneaks behind the backs of everyone in the lab to forge a deep-rooted connection with the beast, she also learns of a sinister government agent's (Michael Shannon) plan to terminate the creature.
Often referred to as a master of storytelling, Guillermo del Toro establishes a daring tale of romance that hurdles the traditional love story. But even more absorbing than the magical fantasy he creates, it's Sally Hawkins who steals the spotlight with an absolutely majestic performance, one that could very well top my annual list for lead actresses. Her work doesn't grab you with a loud and verbal demanding of your attention like awards season rival Margot Robbie in I, Tonya. Instead Hawkins lures the viewer using an earnest and wholesome charm that feels so sadly unfamiliar nowadays. She tap-dances her way into your heart and catapults an odd and profound romantic affair that straddles the line between derivative and innovative remarkably well. The Shape of Water also comes with a wide range of engaging subplots and co-starring talent. While my personal taste navigates a preference towards the supporting work of Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer, both Michael Shannon and Michael Stuhlbarg prove invaluable to the film as well. Any of them are fair game for awards season success, further validating how well-rounded of a movie del Toro has created. Everything from Alexandre Desplat's enchanting score to del Toro's sleek and calculated direction, there's hardly a blemish to be found. The Shape of Water is beautifully filmed, superbly acted, boldly told and without a doubt my favorite film of 2017 so far.