A monster movie and a love story, ‘The Shape of Water’ could have only come from director Guillermo del Toro

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“The Shape of Water” is director Guillermo del Toro’s finest film, a lovely, empathetic tribute to Old Hollywood, monster movies, outsiders and love that could only come from the mind of the visionary filmmaker.

Del Toro’s films have a tendency to be overly precious visually (see “Crimson Peak” or “Pan’s Labyrinth”) at the expense of their stories. Here he crafts a tale that is enriched, not overwhelmed, by its look, and whose humanity shines through its gorgeous, elaborate, award-worthy production design.

He’s aided by one of the year’s best ensemble casts, led by the extraordinary Sally Hawkins, who turns in a wordless performance that is among the year’s best on-screen achievements. She plays Elisa, a mute who works as a janitor at a top secret government facility where a mysterious “Creature from the Black Lagoon”-like fish man (Doug Jones) is being held for tests.

Elisa lives with her roommate, Giles (Richard Jenkins), a repressed gay man whose attempts at romantic affection are met with sharp rebuke. It’s the early 1960s and his sexuality is still taboo, so he keeps to himself and pours his heart into the old movies he watches on the black-and-white television in their shared loft above a movie house.

At work, Elisa and her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) try to keep their heads down, but when they’re assigned to clean the area around the creature’s tank, Elisa grows fond of the fish monster. During her lunch break they secretly share hard boiled eggs, forming a silent bond over their shared status as outsiders.

At the lab, a nasty colonel (a deliciously menacing Michael Shannon) is assigned to keep the monster, who is referred to as “the asset,” under locks. Meanwhile, a researcher (2017 MVP Michael Stuhlbarg) looks to study the creature, while selling its secrets to the Russians (the film unfolds against the tense backdrop of the Cold War).

There’s a lot there, and del Toro manages to gracefully balance it all with a whimsical tone that is like “Amelie,” if “Amelie” were also a creature feature. He doesn’t skimp on his hard-R, horror movie instincts and lets blood spill where it must — sorry cat lovers, not all felines make it out of the movie with their heads in tact — which is what makes this love story so uniquely del Toroian.

He colors everything in shades of aqua green, as much as Tony Scott’s latter films were painted in blueish-grey hues, and “The Shape of Water” becomes a love letter to the color. Green is seen everywhere — in hand soap, in Jello molds, in bathroom tiles and on the creature itself — so much so that it is its own character in the film. Green has rarely had it this good.

An inter-species romance develops, a narrative hurdle some may not be able to clear. Go with it and take it as a metaphor, and appreciate the way Hawkins is able to sell and articulate the love story using just her facial features and her gestures.

Jenkins is equally as touching in a quiet performance that is all longing and heartbreak. Both are marvelous, as is Shannon, in a darkly comic villain role delivered with his demented sensibility.

And “The Shape of Water” is a marvelous movie, an adult fairy tale swimming in truths about racism, homophobia and the fear of the unknown. Del Toro conducts it like a symphony, and his work is touching and compassionate in ways that will surprise viewers. It’s one of the year’s most enchanting films.

agraham@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2284

@grahamorama

‘The Shape of Water’

GRADE: A

Rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language

Running time:

123 minutes

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