If you want to know what to expect from The Shape of Water, just think of it as Amélie meets The Creature from the Black Lagoon – except that they also meet The Little Mermaid, some Hidden Figures and the inhabitants of La La Land. Oh, and they bump into James Bond, too. And then there are various characters from the Coen brothers’ back catalogue. That probably sounds like three or four meetings too many, but don’t worry – The Shape of Water is unmistakably a Guillermo del Toro film. Indeed, I’d be inclined to call it the Guillermo del Toro film: the fantasy masterpiece that blends all of his fondest obsessions into one sumptuous whole.
In this fairy tale, the lovers take turns being the knight in shining armour and damsel in distress
At heart, it’s a grown-up fairy tale about a beauty and a beast – although the glistening beast is attractive, too, if you have an eye for marine wildlife. The beauty is Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a single woman who lives in a rundown Baltimore apartment in the early 1960s. Having damaged her vocal cords when she was an orphaned baby, she speaks only in sign language and raised eyebrows, but her two best friends are garrulous enough to compensate. One of these is her next door neighbour, Giles (Richard Jenkins), a sweetly neurotic commercial artist whose sunny advertising posters have fallen out of fashion. The other is her loyal colleague, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who doesn’t stop grousing about her useless husband, “my Brewster”, even while she is dusting million-dollar doomsday devices.
Elisa and Zelda, you see, are cleaners in a secret military research facility with the towering machinery and concrete corridors favoured by Bond villains everywhere. One of its laboratories houses a new arrival, a scaly, stripy, finny humanoid known only as the Asset (Doug Jones, effectively revisiting the amphibian he played in del Toro’s Hellboy films). He was brought to the facility from a South American rainforest because government scientists (including a mysterious, gentlemanly boffin played by Michael Stuhlbarg) believe that his ability to breathe both air and water could help the Americans take the lead in the space race.
An Oscar contender in pretty much every category, this is one of the year’s most delightful films
If that weren’t undignified enough, the Asset is watched over by Strickland, a beady-eyed security goon who is played by Michael Shannon, and who is just as warm and fuzzy as all of Shannon’s other characters, ie, not at all. A Bible-bashing sadist with an electric cattle prod, Strickland keeps his prisoner manacled in a murky pool or shut in a giant test tube. Elisa is appalled, but her pity for the captive develops into something warmer. She teaches him sign language, introduces him to Benny Goodman records, and generally lets him know how she feels: never has a hard-boiled egg been eaten so flirtatiously. But she soon realises that her boyfriend won’t survive unless she breaks him out. In this fairy tale, Elisa and the Asset take it in turns to be knight in shining armour and damsel in distress.
Tempting as it may be to smirk at a passionate affair between a woman and a fish-man, del Toro tells his story with such gushing enthusiasm that he sweeps you along with it. He doesn’t hold anything back, engulfing the viewer in a torrent of gorgeously gloomy design and ebullient music (composed by Alexandre Desplat), intricate subplots and grandly poetic dialogue (co-written by Vanessa Taylor). Most importantly, the actors are so ideally suited to their roles that you can’t imagine anyone else playing them.
Some people will decide that this is all a bit much: after a while, I admit, the 50-shades-of-green colour scheme had me feeling green about the gills myself. But del Toro keeps masterly control of his material, balancing his dreamlike whimsy with sex, gore and earthy wisecracks, and balancing his twinkling tributes to Hollywood’s golden age with astute commentary on the civil rights movement and Cold War paranoia. An Oscar contender in pretty much every category, The Shape of Water is one of the most delightful films of the year. And it is definitely the best film ever to be a romantic comedy, a melodrama, a spy thriller, a heist caper, a superhero blockbuster and a monster movie all at once. What more do you want?
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.