The Shape Of Water is a fantastically dark fairytale story from Guillermo del Toro that’s both emotionally moving and steadfastly unflinching.

In lesser hands, a film that features Michael Shannon’s slowly rotting fingers, Sally Hawkins embarking on a romance with a fish-man and Michael Stuhlbarg speaking the majority of his dialogue in Russian would be a hard sell. But, in the hands of ethereal dreamer Guillermo del Toro, it is a gloriously nuanced and varied mash up of different genres. The result is an intriguing combination, a Romcom/Horror/Fantasy/Period Piece, if you will. Set in pre-Civil Rights Act Baltimore in 1962, the story focuses on downtrodden individuals triumphing in the face of adversity. In a case of life imitating art, this movie delivers against the odds to produce a wonderfully eclectic film of real heart, conviction and style.

Gripped in the midst of the Cold War and the entailing paranoia, mute janitor Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) leads an uninspired existence whilst working at a top-secret government facility.  She begins to communicate with and ultimately falls in love with a mysterious amphibian man (Doug Jones) who is imprisoned there and hatches a plot to help him escape. This is del Toro’s idea of a dark fairytale however; extreme shock violence is mixed with whimsical fancy. On co-writing duties is Game of Thrones alumni Vanessa Taylor, a first time collaboration between the two. The duo’s story is not necessarily concise, but is kept taut, engaging and fast paced whilst conversely covering a wide variety of subplots.

It is not only testament to the ability of the writer-director that the audience is fully immersed in this world, but that we also believe in it. The tenderness and affection that is so evident between the star-crossed lovers ultimately means that his gills and fins are quickly forgotten. They adapt and grow whilst exploring their feelings, making the amphibian man display more and more human characteristics, whilst Elisa grows to realise that love is love, whether between man, woman or fish-man.

Director of Photography Dan Laustsen, whose previous work includes the gorgeously shot Crimson Peak and the eerie Silent Hill, evokes the title of the film by splashing vivid neon blues and aquatic greens throughout. By expertly interspersing such lightness in the drab surroundings of the laboratory corridors, it almost feels as if Elisa’s world is physically brighter whenever she spends time with the amphibious man. Light and darkness almost become tangible characters in the picture. The 60’s era set design and throwbacks to early 20th Century cinema is an absolute joy. From diners to retro movie theatres, Cadillacs to Shirley Temple numbers, every frame and scene is clearly a labour of love driven by the director’s childhood influences. Notice the nod to Creature From The Black Lagoon in the physical anatomy of the amphibian man, a film that del Toro has previously revealed as being instrumental in shaping his perspective on this film.

The Shape Of Water is most certainly a parable for modern times. It’s no coincidence that our heroes are a mute, a black woman and an openly gay man. Played wonderfully by Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins respectively, they are able to circumvent the villainy of Michael Shannon’s Col. Richard Strickland. This is most apparent after the escape attempt where he is hunting for information, during an interrogation sequence with Elisa and her colleague Zelda (Spencer) when he remarks, “What am I doing, interviewing the fucking help? The shit cleaners. The piss wipers.” It is this arrogant ignorance that embodies right wing America currently, as the very perpetrators are under his nose. Whilst he is obsessed with Russian spies and unseen enemies, it’s people he perceived as beneath him that have opposed his cruelty and prejudice.

Veteran composer Alexandre Desplats provides a twinkling, upbeat score that would not be out of place in a Disney princess movie. However, despite all the frivolity of the music, it quickly becomes grounded with gratuitous violence, including the poor unfortunate fate of a cat that angers the monster. Fundamentally, however, this is unique story telling coupled with superb performances. Michael Shannon is excellent in a pantomime baddie role, whilst Richard Jenkins provides the comic relief as a father figure Giles to the orphaned Elisa.

It is Sally Hawkins’ show, however. Her Elisa, conversing solely in sign language, is vulnerable yet determined. Aware of her deficiencies, but refusing to be pigeon holed by them, it is a performance of such quality that the audience is mesmerised by every shrug, eye roll or smile. This culminates in an incredibly poignant and impassioned speech, that comes about when Giles states that her amour isn’t even human and that they can’t risk their lives to save him “If we do nothing” she retorts “Then neither are we” In Doug Jones, who delivers another spellbinding creature performance to add to his burgeoning list, there is an underrated actor who does not receive the adulation he deserves. Whether it’s the eponymous Pan in Pans Labyrinth or Abe Sapien in Hellboy, he is firmly established as del Toro’s monster muse. As in life, the love between the two conquers all. In uncertain times, this message is sorely needed.

★★★★☆

The Shape of Water is out in cinemas across the UK now.