It must be a strange and confusing experience for the average moviegoer to walk into a Guillermo Del Toro film and see something like The Shape of Water. If you’ve only been exposed to his usual Hollywood fare – Hellboy or Pacific Rim, for example – you’d be forgiven for expecting an action-packed blockbuster; possibly an origin story for Hellboy‘s own aquatic superhero, Abe Sapien. This, however, is not the case. 

The Shape of Water is a stunningly beautiful and refreshingly original romance, far more similar in style and aesthetic to Del Toro’s 2006 masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth, though not quite as dark and horrific. Set during the 1960s, it tells the story of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaning lady at a covert government installation in Baltimore, and the strange amphibious man being kept there. More than this, I don’t really want to say: the film is best enjoyed fresh and without spoilers. Suffice to say that it is at times tender, invigorating, intriguing and disturbing, and let’s leave it at that.

What’s really delightful about this film is that Del Toro is clearly a director who doesn’t shy away from challenging himself. Who else would choose to make a film wherein the central romance has to be conducted silently, or to set it in a time and place with so many parallels to the current political climate? The story goes that he got the idea for the film after being turned down by Universal for a potential Creature from the Black Lagoon remake. The influence of that classic can definitely be seen here, particularly in the aquatic man’s design, which looks stunningly authentic. For that we can probably thank Doug Jones, who plays the creature, and who fans of Del Toro’s work will recognise as Abe Sapien in both Hellboy movies – clearly he is to mer-men what Andy Serkis is to cinematic apes.

The film doesn’t just look great. With a score by Alexandre Desplat, it sounds great too, and with award season just around the corner I won’t be at all surprised to see The Shape of Water picking up a good few nominations. Catch it in cinemas while you can, because trust me, you don’t want to let this film be the one that got away.