Director Guillermo Del Toro has been responsible for a number of visual wonders on the screen, from his Oscar-winning Pan’s Labyrinth to bigger-budgeted efforts such as Crimson Peak, Pacific Rim, Hellboy and many more. His lifelong love of monsters has informed much of his work, but nothing prepared me — or probably him — for the sweeping romantic magic of The Shape of WaterAlthough this sumptuous fantasy also involves a new Del Toro creation, a kind of Creature from the Black Lagoon-like figure played beneath the elaborate costume by Doug Jones, this is perhaps the most human, and humane, film yet to come from the mind of Del Toro.

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As I say in my video review above, it almost defies description but clearly is the most emotional work we have yet seen from a man who obviously is a romantic at heart. Set in 1962, the story centers on Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute who spends days in her apartment under a fading old movie palace by watching old classics on TV along with her friend Giles (Richard Jenkins). He’s an offbeat character with a bad hairpiece who also happens to be gay in a time when that wasn’t easy to admit. By night, she is on the cleaning crew at a top-secret facility where she works alongside her colleague and friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Into their midst arrives a mysterious crated visitor known as an Asset, who turns out to be the creature. He is there for experimental purposes under the guidance of villainous and cold-hearted boss Strickland (Michael Shannon), but once Elisa gets a peek at him it begins the most unusual screen romance since King Kong grabbed Fay Wray. Of course, there is danger in all of this as Elisa, with the help of Zelda, carries on with him in secret while Strickland sees the Asset only for his own evil means.

The film, which remarkably cost less than $20 million but looks like $75 million at least, is gorgeously appointed and beautifully shot by Danish cinematographer Dan Lausten, with a sweeping musical score that represents some of the best work ever from composer Alexandre Desplat. Del Toro’s sense of visual splendor and arresting screen images isn’t hampered one bit by the lower-than-usual budget, and The Shape of Water represents his most personal and what he says is his most satisfying and favorite film to date.

Part of that can be due to flawless performance from Hawkins, who gives a silent performance that can stand alongside any other in movie history. She’s captivating, heartbreaking and perfect as a woman who sees something in the creature that the rest of world never would. This is a film about all those living beings we might just otherwise ignore, but who through their own beating hearts find each other. Jones inhabits his role with great dignity and emotional power, making this unlikely pairing one for the cinematic ages.

Jenkins, simply one of the best actors we have, creates a lively and fun Giles, while Spencer manages to steal several scenes speaking for herself and Elisa. Michael Stuhlbarg also provides nice support, while Shannon’s bad guy is played exactly as you might expect. Vanessa Taylor co-wrote the screenplay with Del Toro, who packs in lots of movie references for geeks just like him. A stunning new vocal of the evergreen “You’ll Never Know” from the Alice Faye film Hello Frisco Hello is sung to great effect by opera legend Renee Fleming over the end credits. Producers are Del Toro and J. Miles Dale. Fox Searchlight is opening the film Friday in NYC, followed by a rollout throughout December in other major markets including L.A. on December 8. The film won the Golden Lion at Venice this year.

Do you plan to see The Shape of Water? Let us know what you think.