Mesmerizing and meticulously crafted, “The Shape of Water” is writer/director Guillermo del Toro doing what he does best: bringing simple yet timeless stories to life with heart, humanity and incomparable style.

While the story del Toro chooses to tell here is nothing new, he tells it with such gentle grace and palpable emotion that it never once feels staid or derivative. Add to that incredible art design and exceptional work from a talented cast and what you get is nothing short of a masterwork.

What’s it about?

In an unnamed city in early 1960’s Cold War-gripped America, Eliza (Sally Hawkins), who is mute, lives and works as a cleaning lady in a government research facility, surrounded by scientists and military men who take little notice of her.

She has precious few friends, but the ones she has – her artist neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her co-worker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer) – are fiercely loyal and help her communicate with others who have little patience for her speaking in sign language.

Eliza’s entire existence changes with two new arrivals to her workplace. One is Strickland (Michael Shannon), an ambitious, imposing G-man who makes it clear to everyone around that they’re parts of a step in his career ladder.

The other is Strickland’s prize (Doug Jones), a scientific curiosity with which Eliza feels an immediate connection. As time passes, that connection grows more compelling, until finally, when it is threatened, Eliza finds she must take drastic and dangerous action.

Gentle, rhythmic storytelling

“The Shape of Water” bears some resemblance in the broad strokes to Guillermo Del Toro’s last major studio project, 2015’s “Crimson Peak.” The genres he takes on differ – gothic romance vs. fairy tale romance – but Del Toro’s distinctive approach to the material is similar.

Yes, part of that approach is visual artistry, but just as important is Del Toro’s patience as a storyteller. He endows “The Shape of Water” with a gentle, immersive rhythm as its story unfolds, one that should fully sweep audiences into the time, place, and emotion of the film.

That’s not to say Del Toro isn’t economical with imagery or plot beats, either. While the film clocks in at just over two hours, there’s nothing here that’s dragged out or overdone to the point where less-patient audiences might start thinking, ‘Ok, we get it, move it along.’

Stellar performances

Sally Hawkins leads the cast of “The Shape of Water” with a performance that should place her as a frontrunner for every major acting accolade come awards season.

Her range of emotion and expression here without the use of a single word (aside from one key scene) is irresistible from start to finish. Though she’s playing a small woman living day to day in a world that barely notices her, Hawkins endows Eliza with a grandness of heart and spirit that audiences will notice right away, one that should have them cheering for her as the film’s drama unfolds.

Hawkins’s work is matched by the work of her co-stars. Spencer, Jenkins, Jones and Michael Stuhlbarg all deliver delightful turns characterized by authenticity, heart, and emotional strength, while Shannon brings a nuanced but still chilling take on the fairy tale villain.

Worth seeing?

As with just about any Del Toro film, “The Shape of Water” features breathtaking make-up and costume design. Fan’s of the director’s previous work “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” may see some resemblance to the more striking elements here, but the level of detail and realism in this new effort goes far beyond what the earlier production aimed for and delivered.

The beauty of the art design behind that costume and make-up as well as the production itself, with its film noir-inspired take on its settings and lighting, almost demand that this film be seen on a big screen. There’s just no other way to fully appreciate the vision here; to wait for it to arrive in a lesser medium is to cheat yourself of a truly remarkable cinematic experience.

Thus, for the beauty in its performances and the artistry in its vision, “The Shape of Water” should be on every cinephiles’ “must-see” list for the end of 2017. If you don’t consider yourself a “cinephile”, just make it the one “artsy” film you see for the year, and take someone you love.

You won’t be disappointed.

The Shape of Water

Starring Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg and Octavia Spencer. Directed by Guillermo del Toro.
Running time: 123 minutes
Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language.