"The Shape of Water" plunges into a mossy, aquamarine world of dreams and taboo desires, a wistful fable.
This allegory by groundbreaking filmmaker Guillermo del Toro bears his hallmarks, from monsters and surreal environments to tender romance. It's an endearing, haunting film from an artist who bends even the hoariest tropes to his deeply humanistic imagination.
Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, "the princess without a voice." She's on a cleaning crew at a cavernous research facility where the U.S. government has brought in a humanoid amphibian with powers that may have implications for the space race and Cold War.
Elisa is mute, more attuned to what's communicated under the vaguely sinister surface at the aquarium. She connects with the fish-man (portrayed in gilled regalia by Doug Jones), who likes the hard-boiled eggs she brings. The relationship alarms his handler, Strickland, played by Michael Shannon.
Filmed in aqueous greens and blues, its design dripping with kitschy nostalgia, "The Shape of Water" takes its cues from Golden Age Hollywood musicals, Bible epics and 1950s creature features. Elisa's best friend, Giles (Richard Jenkins), is an artist working on a campaign for Jell-O, the shaky symbol for the period's uncertain hopes and anxieties.
But starting with Giles and Elisa's friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), through Shannon's masculinity at its most malevolent, the message comes through too loud and clear, as Elisa and her band of outsiders suffer homophobia, racism and intolerance.
But Hawkins' portrayal of Elisa stands out, her pie-faced plainness cracking into a radiant pirate's smile that speaks volumes. "The Shape of Water" gives a second chance to see Hawkins at her best this year (she delivered an accomplished performance in "Maudie"), in a role with power, emotional connection and surprisingly raw sensuality.
Hawkins gives life to del Toro's ideals and longing for connection. "The Shape of Water" is prone to patronizing. But whether the depths are literal or figurative, Hawkins transcends them with winsome finesse.