What do you get if you cross Amelie and The Creature from the Black Lagoon? If you're Guillermo Del Toro, the answer is The Shape of Water, a delightful creature feature-slash-romance that's suffused with a love of cinema and plays like a deliciously dark fairy-tale.
Set in 1962 Baltimore, the film stars Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a mute woman who works as a cleaner at an underground government research facility. When she discovers that a strange, aquatic fish-man (Doug Jones) is being kept in the lab, she forms a romantic attachment with the creature, teaching it to communicate.
When she learns that vicious security head Strickland (Michael Shannon) plans to dissect the creature, Elisa hatches a plan to rescue it, aided by chatty co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her gay artist neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins). Meanwhile, the Russians are also plotting to abduct the creature, spurring scientist Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) into his own desperate action.
There are a multitude of different influences at play in The Shape of Water, from '50s sci-fi movies to Douglas Sirk melodramas and even classic musicals, but the film still manages to feel bracingly original. A large part of that is down to the tone, which is remarkably adult, with a strong focus on Elisa's sexual desire.
The script also explores resonant, powerful themes of bigotry and intolerance, not just in the explicit parallels between Strickland's violence and the ongoing civil rights protests seen on news broadcasts, but also in its sensitive treatment of the lives of its supporting characters – it's no coincidence that the creature rescue team is comprised of society's outsiders.
Hawkins is simply wonderful as Elisa, using her expressive face and body language to convey a richly-textured character (her subversive streak is particularly appealing) who is both utterly adorable and full of surprises.
The supporting cast are equally good. Shannon can do sinister in his sleep, but he goes the extra mile with Strickland, right down to the inclusion of two rotting gangrenous fingers that serve as a visual indicator of his moral decay. Similarly, Spencer is a delight as no-nonsense Zelda, while Jenkins is both funny and moving as Giles, whose relationship with Elisa jolts him out of his refusal to engage in the world around him.
In addition, the film looks utterly gorgeous throughout, courtesy of Paul D. Austerberry's jaw-dropping production design (you could have called the film Fifty Shades Of Green), while Alexandre Desplat's note-perfect accordion-based score underlines the connection to Jeunet's Amelie.
Put simply, this is Del Toro's best film since Pan's Labyrinth and as such, one of the best films of the year.