Less a movie than a conjuring, “The Shape of Water” plunges viewers into a mossy, aquamarine world of dreams and taboo desires, its contours as a wistful fable adjusted more than slightly for very real, present-day concerns.
As a creation of the groundbreaking filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, this fantastical allegory bears the director’s fetishistic hallmarks, which run to monsters and surrealistic environments, bloody body horror and meltingly tender romance. “The Shape of Water” may not achieve the aesthetic and thematic heights of 2006’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which still stands as del Toro’s masterpiece. But it’s an endearing, even haunting film from one of cinema’s most inventive artists, one who manages to bend even the hoariest B-movie tropes to his idiosyncratic, deeply humanistic imagination.
Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, who, at the beginning of the film, is described as “the princess without a voice.” As the action gets underway, we discover that she’s actually on a cleaning crew at a damp, cavernous research facility in Baltimore where, in Kennedy-era America, the U.S. government has brought in a mysterious humanoid amphibian from the Amazon, possessed of powers that may have implications for the space race and Cold War politics.
As prodigious as del Toro’s vision and craftsmanship are, it’s Hawkins who gives palpable life to his deepest ideals, and their undertow of longing for connection, not simply as a matter of romantic love, but civic virtue.
“The Shape of Water” sometimes sinks from its own best intentions, making it prone to patronizing on-the-nose-ness. But whether the depths are literal or figurative, Hawkins and her character manage to transcend them with winsome finesse.