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Guillermo del Toro’s 10th feature, The Shape of Water, is a fairy tale that requires significant suspension of belief. Part monster movie and part romance, the film recalls B-movies such as Creature From the Black Lagoon—in fact, del Toro’s creature resembles Lagoon’s—but in Shape, the damsel is hardly in distress. And if you let it, the film will leave you transfixed.
Del Toro sets the otherworldly tone in the very first scene, a teal-tinged one in which the apartment of our heroine, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), is flooded, its contents gently floating while Elisa sleeps above her couch. Even by the writer-director’s standards, it’s gorgeous. Elisa is mute, and this 1960s-set story (co-written by Vanessa Taylor) is a valentine to outliers: In addition to Elisa’s involuntary silence, her best friend, Giles (Richard Jenkins), is gay and scorned when he makes a mild pass at a crush; there’s a scene in which a black couple is turned away at a diner; and of course there’s the creature itself, captured by the U.S. government and known simply as “The Asset.”
Despite her disability, Elisa is an infectiously happy woman, tap dancing and smiling on her way to work as an overnight cleaning lady in the building in which the creature is housed. She’s chatty (via sign language) with another cleaning woman, her longtime friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer). And she’s fearless: Shortly after the creature’s tank is brought on the premises, Elisa approaches it and taps on the glass. The reaction is frightening, but that doesn’t stop her from continuing to try to communicate with this seemingly half-man, half-fish, who turns out to have restorative powers. (The creature is played by Doug Jones, credited as “Amphibian Man;” Jones also played the aquatic Abe Sapien in del Toro’s Hellboy and Hellboy II.)
The government employees involved with the project, which ostensibly is to study the creature in an attempt to catch up to Russia in the space race, don’t care much about their asset. In charge is Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who becomes combative with the creature and eventually loses two fingers. A scientist, Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), is more protective of their find, seeing via Elisa’s eyes that it is intelligent and capable of communication (more on that later). But Hoffstetler also has Russian ties, so what’s his true objective?
The Shape of Water eventually blossoms into the aforementioned love story between Elisa and Amphibian Man, one that is certainly improbable. But between Alexandre Desplat’s score, Dan Laustsen’s luscious cinematography, and del Toro’s graceful camera, you’ll feel as buoyant as our odd couple when they’re underwater together. There’s also a thriller component here when various parties want Amphibian Man dead; certainly, Elisa must do something, and she can’t do it without her friends’ help.
The cast is wonderful—Jenkins is warm and lovable, Spencer is funny, and Shannon, as always, plays the perfect snake. But it’s Hawkins’ silent performance that’s the knockout here. You don’t have to know sign language to understand the emotion her character is expressing, and there’s not a moment in which you’ll catch Hawkins acting. Her Elisa thinks and feels deeply, which makes it all the more satisfying to watch her find love.
There are, however, moments that don’t work, such as a black-and-white song-and-dance number that borders on the ridiculous. And it’s a stretch to buy how easily Amphibian Man picks up sign language or how he instantly knows how to work a doorknob. But these are quibbles. It’s more important to embrace the bigger fantasy, and you may be surprised to find that you will.
The Shape of Water opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema, Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema, and Angelika Mosaic.