Guillermo del Toro is back in form with The Shape of Water

Elisa (Sally Hawkins), who works nights on the janitorial staff of a secret research facility, can hear perfectly well, but cannot speak at all, due to a mysterious childhood accident. (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

In the Observer, Rex Reed described Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water as “a loopy, lunkheaded load of drivel.” On Twitter, Neil Gaiman declared The Shape of Water “definitely my movie of the year. I need to live longer before I decide whether or not it is my movie of the life. But it may be.” On Facebook, he added that it was “perhaps the best film I’ve seen since…well, since Pan’s Labyrinth.”

Depending on whether Reed’s tastes or Gaiman’s more closely resonate with your own, you may not need to read any further. But if the last del Toro work that you saw was Crimson Peak (2015), don’t judge his newest opus by that parameter. The Mexican master of dark fantasy has decidedly found his feet again. The Shape of Water can boast not only of swoonily opulent production design and superb cinematography, but also of an abundance of heart. It’s an incredibly touching love story that will break down your every barricade of rational resistance to the concept of interspecies romance, if you give it the chance.

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Del Toro is catholic-with-a-small-c when it comes to overlaying genres, visual and sonic aesthetics and historical time periods, and his directorial confidence is such that by the time you walk out of the cinema, you’ll no longer be mystified by his decision to use the stony heart of the Cold War as the setting for a magic-realist fable like this. Mid-century Hollywood musicals, Russian spies, Jim Crow, postwar consumerism, Dobie Gillis and Mr. Ed and the Monster from the Black Lagoon all get thrown into his melting pot, along with contemporary sensibilities about such timely topics as gayness and sexual harassment and “othering.” What emerges at the core of del Toro’s improbable Venn diagram is a revelation of what “humanness” means – despite the fact that one of the focal characters is a rubbery seven-foot amphibious humanoid (Doug Jones) who has been kidnapped from the Amazon to be studied by Pentagon scientists.

For serious movie buffs, The Shape of Water is worth seeing simply on the basis of its stunning sets, which liberally apply a marine color palette and lots of white tile to evoke a Dieselpunk-subterranean-swimming-pool vibe for its primary settings: a couple of apartments upstairs from a Baltimore movie palace and a clandestine military research facility. The camerawork is exquisite, the composition of frames meticulous enough to be worthy of a Wes Anderson film. But if character and storytelling are what draw you to the cinema, you will revel more in the depiction of a tender relationship that blooms without words.

Our mousy heroine, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), who works nights on the janitorial staff of the aforementioned secret research facility, can hear perfectly well, but cannot speak at all, due to a mysterious childhood accident that has left her with concentric scars on her neck that resemble healed gills. She has developed a close friendship with a fellow fish-out-of-water: her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay commercial artist who is having trouble selling his work. When the South American captive euphemistically called the Asset is dumped into a tank at her workplace for study (his multipurpose lungs being of great interest in the Space Race), Elisa is naturally the only one who can figure out how to communicate with him. They meet cute over hardboiled eggs and pursue a tentative courtship to the strains of Benny Goodman.

The most problematic element in The Shape of Water is the villain, Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon), who embodies pretty much everything detestable about America circa 1962. He’s a bigot and a stalker and a jingoist, as if just being a sadist who can’t wait to vivisect his scaly charge weren’t damning enough. Del Toro has a great deal of fun at Strickland’s expense, letting us watch a Cadillac salesman flatter him into an extravagant purchase and subsequently cheer when said brand-new Caddy gets banged up in a car chase. The character’s lines, and Shannon’s delivery, are so over-the-top eee-villl that I was rolling my eyes – until I realized that I was basically listening to del Toro’s homage to General Turgidson, George C. Scott’s character in Dr. Strangelove. After that he was easier to love/hate.

Otherwise, the whole cast does a wonderful job, especially Jenkins as Giles, Octavia Spencer as Elisa’s mouthy, long-suffering co-worker Zelda and Michael Stuhlbarg as Dr. Hoffstetler, a scientist whose divided sympathies drive much of the plot to spring the captive “monster.” Best of all is Hawkins, whose sublime work here reminds us that what makes a really fine actor is less the ability to deliver a line well than a talent for communicating with the eyes, with posture, with gesture. It’s a bravura performance.

The monster in you will be tamed by Elisa’s bravery, and the mouse in you will be liberated by the Asset’s plight. Go see it now, and fall in love with someone…a little different.

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