3 (out of 4)
Guillermo Del Toro has no doubt assembled a gorgeous, kinetic work of visual craft with The Shape of Water, but I wish his concept of an adult fairy tale, a formula used to perfection in Pan’s Labyrinth, let reality properly seep in through the cracks of fantasy. This new film does not double as both pure invention and the allegorical escape from the setting of despair into a child's imagination, but as a formal fable, pure and simple. Without Richard Jenkins' unnecessary narration and such a whimsical conclusion, this would stand with the year's most elegant achievements.
Sally Hawkins is breathtaking, a hopeful shoe-in for a Best Actress trophy – she tops the tightest race of the year, delivering a performance to quietly outshine both Frances McDormand and Saoirse Ronan. Her performance as the meek, curious mute who cleans is brimming with humanity, and the silence and sign language at the center of the film's unwieldy romance is the most lovely and cinematic aspect of Del Toro's vision.
Jenkins and Octavia Spencer are both fairly typecast in roles they’ve been deemed suited for many times over. Michael Shannon is the only supporting cast member not hindered by a new crack at a familiar role, but rather the actor reenters his expert plane of erecting despicable antagonists.
The film's genre concoctions aren't so carefully blended; there are grim jolts of violence, bizarre bestial sexuality set against an easy plot and neat stakes. There is a joy in The Shape of Water when its oddities are faced fearlessly and its potential as an unconventionally warm, whimsical piece of holiday-friendly escapism is less emphasized.
To keep it brief...