The Shape of Water is a fairy tale of eros, horror and whimsy, a creature feature doubling as a swooning romance, its bloodiness pumped straight from the heart of master fantasist Guillermo del Toro.
Set during the Cold War, The Shape of Water is steeped in Beauty and the Beast mythology, pulp patriotism and del Toro's cinephilia. It's a movie that despite explicit moments maintains an innocence suitable for the vintage movie theater Sally Hawkins' heroine lives above.
Hawkins melts your heart as Elisa Esposito, a mousy, mute woman whose only two friends are outcasts of other sorts in this era. One is her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay, shy advertising artist. The other is Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer), Elisa's black co-worker, cleaning floors at a top secret U.S. government laboratory.
The lab's latest "asset" is an amphibious man played by Doug Jones in the most convincing monster costume ever, an latex-evolved descendant of Creature From the Black Lagoon. Captured in the Amazon by sadistic agent Strickland (a superb Michael Shannon), the aquaman is wanted by the Russians, whose lab mole Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) is on the case.
Sensing a kindred loner, Elisa spends time with the creature, shares lunch and Benny Goodman on the phonograph, and falls in love just like the singing and dancing movie stars downstairs. When the creature's future is threatened, Giles and Zelda will assist her with his escape.
The premise isn't far from Saturday matinee movies of the era del Toro recreates. Except the eroticism of creatures and women swept into their arms, claws or whatever in those movies isn't subtext here; it's right there on the surface. A risky idea that might be laughed off the screen except del Toro makes interspecies sex just another step in a grand love story. If you're not all-in emotionally by the time del Toro drops a fantasy into his fantasy, check your pulse.
Instead, del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor find other politics to explore, specifically through the Strickland character, a "man of the future" as a car salesman pegs him. Strickland's racist, sexist, anti-science, America-First persona suggests the salesman has a point. Shannon's signature rage works overtime here, perfect for someone literally rotting; two fingers bitten off by the creature are reattached, not antiseptically. Del Toro's gift for mixing horror and humor radiates in the role and Shannon's performance.
He's a rabid counterpoint to Hawkins' delicate work as Elisa, its silent-film clarity of wordless emotion. Her expressions while signing her despair to Giles or lying to Strickland leave a catch or chuckle in your throat. Any prizes coming Hawkins' way this awards season are deserved.
Del Toro color-codes his love story in aqua hues, turning darker as inevitable tragedy draws closer. Dan Laustsen's camera almost imperceptibly drifts during scenes between Elisa and the creature, like a leaf on water's surface. Alexandre Desplat's musical score is by turns fanciful and foreboding as fairy tales go. Each piece fits gently, irresistibly into place making The Shape of Water one of the year's finest films.
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Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.