Fair warning: considerable spoilers follow – read after watching.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: The Shape Of Water is every bit as good as you’ve heard.

Directed by Guillermo del Toro, The Shape Of Water follows Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaner at a government facility who meets “The Asset” – an amphibian humanoid (part man, part fish) that the government is studying. Elisa begins to spend time with The Asset, leading the security head Strickland (Michael Shannon) to grow suspicious of her motives.

The story is a lot more involved than that – I’ve not mentioned Elisa’s neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins), the head scientist Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) or her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) – but as this is effectively all I knew going in to the film, I’m going to refrain from saying any more because I want you all to see this on the same terms I did.

The Shape Of Water is a simple story. It is very much del Toro’s play on the traditional boy-meets-girl format – even though, if you know anything of del Toro’s work, it goes in a few surprising directions, very much in keeping with his earlier work. But it is a simple story well told. I would say it is del Toro’s best work since Pan’s Labyrinth. And it might be better than that.

(Funny story: at the end of the film, the lady I was sitting next to leaned over and said “did you enjoy that?” and I said that I did. She said “I had no idea he was such a good director”, and I pointed out Pan’s Labyrinth as a sign that he had this kind of film in him. Then she said “I only know him from The Usual Suspects”, and I said “Sorry?” And she said “yeah, he played the crook with the weird voice.” So I explained that it was Benicio del Toro in The Usual Suspects, not Guillermo del Toro. She apologised, got up from her seat, and left the theatre.)

In addition to being a love story in the traditional sense, The Shape Of Water is a love story to film. It seems – to me – to be very much a love letter to classic Hollywood cinema, both in style and in production design.

The film is infused with clips from old Hollywood titles like 1935’s The Little Colonel and 1941’s That Night In Rio, lovingly viewed by Elisa and her neighbour Giles, both of whom are pursuing the more idealistic version of love you find in the movies, particularly of that time. Indeed, the story that unfolds between Elisa and The Asset is idealistic. Their relationship is almost juvenile in the way that they relate, but it is also innocent and tender and meaningful in a way that is relatable. Credit to Hawkins and Doug Jones, the frequent del Toro collaborator in the fish suit.

Or to put it another way, by half way through the film, I was actively cheering for Elisa to get the fish.

The production design also echoes old Hollywood – or, at least, the version of the 1950s presented in old Hollywood cinema. The few cityscapes we see, the design of the buildings and interior sets, the costume design, right through to Alexandre Desplat’s gorgeous score – this is a film that has been meticulously designed to evoke the era in which it is set.

I especially loved the interior of the clandestine government facility: it looks like the kind of location you’d find in an old sci-fi movie – as if props from The Day The Earth Stood Still or The War Of The Worlds could roll past in the background. Even the underground car park looks like it was formerly the scene of someone meeting a secret agent. The film looks amazing.

None of this is surprising, of course. Guillermo del Toro has an avowed love of film from that era – and he is on record as saying that this film is inspired by his reaction to 1954’s Creature From The Black Lagoon, in which he envisioned the creature ending up with Julie Adams at the end of the film.

(Another funny story: I read that del Toro began work on this film after his concept for a remake of Creature From The Black Lagoon – which would have been part of NBC’s since-scrapped Dark Universe – was rejected. His concept? Tehe creature hooks up with the female lead at the end.)

The Shape Of Water is a stylish film with a stellar cast, one of the most beautiful and unique love stories you’ll see, and a sign that del Toro is operating at an extremely high level. Plus, it’s a pretty phenomenal fantasy/sci-fi movie to boot. I don’t think it will win Best Picture at the forthcoming Academy Awards. But I really want it to.

The Shape Of Water is directed by Guillermo del Toro, written by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, and stars Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, David Hewlett and Doug Jones. It is in cinemas now.