Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water was the opening film of the mini-festival Telluride at Dartmouth, and so I got to see it a few months before it will be released generally. I love del Toro's work — even when it falls flat for me (Crimson Peak), it's nonetheless clearly the work of someone with his own vision and style. And when I am on the same wavelength as the film (The Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth, Pacific Rim), the experience is overwhelmingly beautiful and moving. Indeed, that for me is the hallmark of del Toro at his best: real, unbridled emotion coupled with a visual imagination that is lushly inventive, and a sense for color the equal of any other director today.
Del Toro is also a master melodramatist, a common form not frequently mastered. In that sense, he's our Douglas Sirk, but without Sirk's irony. (Perhaps we could say that del Toro replaces Sirk's irony with fantasy: melding a classical sense of melodrama with the logic of fairy tales. Where irony both infuses and undercuts Sirk's realities, magic infuses and undercuts the basic reality in del Toro's worlds.) The Shape of Water may be his most classical melodrama yet. It's a beauty-and-the-beast (or fish & bird) love story set in the midst of Cold War America, and it's satisfying because it hits almost every plot point exactly as it seems it should. For anyone who's ever seen such movies, there's nothing particularly surprising in the plotting, and in this case that's a virtue, because you get to see the familiar performed by an expert with absolute confidence in his craft. It's a story about the little people, the marginalized and oppressed, seizing a chance to do some good in the world, and there's not a cynical note anywhere to be found. A fairy tale, yes, maybe, definitely; but one we sometimes need, one that is invigorating in a world that feels ever more filled with monsters. (I will never tire of Idris Elba's speech in Pacific Rim: "Today we face the monsters that are at our door...")
It's inaccurate to say that del Toro is the only expert here making hugely difficult tasks look effortless. One of the joys of The Shape of Water is that he assembled a team of actors and crew who are among the best in the world at what they do. The production design, the cinematography, the costumes, the special effects, the editing, the music, the acting — all wondrous, and not wondrous only because they're created by highly skilled artists, but because those artists all seem to be working together with a unified sense of their project. Every element of the mise-en-scene is carefully designed and intentionally used, with themes and ideas wending across the light, sets, props, and visual effects. (For a movie called The Shape of Water, of course water imagery is important, but the inventiveness with which it's used is really something to see.) Alexandre Desplat's music, for instance, is perfect not just because it's Alexandre Desplat, an accomplished film composer, but because it's exactly right for this movie. It's a movie that relies on its music for certain effects. But that's true for every element — to give just one example, the editing is often elegant, but almost by definition that tends to go unnoticed; now and then, though, editing can provide its own overt effects, and in The Shape of Water there's one cut (involving cornflakes) that caused lots of happy laughter throughout the big audience at Dartmouth. Just a quick moment, a little burst of joy in amidst the flow of the story and images. That's mastery.
Of course, the most visible members of a film's creative team are the actors, and del Toro cast The Shape of Water beautifully. Sally Hawkins is not nearly as well known as she deserves to be — her performance in Happy-Go-Lucky alone ought to earn her eternal fame — but The Shape of Water will bring her a lot more notice, I expect. She hardly speaks, yet her eyes, face, and gestures convey everything we could ever need. (Indeed, I bet the subtitles for her signing could be dispensed with and we'd still understand most of what's necessary.) She makes it look easy, but it's a performance I expect the great silent film actors would applaud.
The other actors are all marvelous in their own ways, with Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, and Octavia Spencer as stand-outs because of what they are able to bring to roles that could have been dull or overly familiar: Shannon as the sadistic baddie, Jenkins as the geeky befuddled aging roommate, Spencer as the side-kick. Yet each is continually surprising. Shannon and Jenkins rarely deliver a line in a predictable way, and Octavia Spencer might have the best facial expressions of any actor currently working. All three have that mysterious charisma that makes them fill whatever frame they're in.
Since the film isn't in general release yet, I won't say anything more here about the details. I will say, though, that this is a movie to see in a theatre, preferably with a big audience. (And I say that as someone who typically hates being in large audiences.) Part of the magic the film works is communal. It's a melodrama, unabashedly, and it plays the audience like an organ. That's part of the fun: letting your senses and emotions become an instrument in the hands of an absolute master.