correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed Strickland’s comment about God to the character Giles. This version has been updated.
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.
Elisa, it turns out, is mute, making her more highly attuned to what’s being communicated under the dank, vaguely sinister surface at the aquarium. She quickly makes a connection with the fish-man (portrayed in fully-gilled prosthetic regalia by Doug Jones), who likes the hard-boiled eggs she brings in from home, a relationship that alarms the fish-man’s handler, an agent named Strickland, played with sneering menace by Michael Shannon.
Filmed in aqueous greens and blues, its period design dripping with kitschy nostalgia and retro-futurism, “The Shape of Water” takes its cues from Golden Age Hollywood, including musicals, Bible epics and 1950s creature features, as well as the sleekly optimistic advertising imagery of the early 1960s: Elisa’s best friend and next-door neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), is a commercial artist working on a campaign for Jell-O, the shaky symbolic repository for the time period’s most uncertain hopes and anxieties. But if the world that del Toro builds reflects his usual attention to surprise and detail, the characters that populate it too often feel rote, crammed into roles whose metaphorical meaning too often feels simplistic and bluntly at odds with the rest of the film’s subtlety. Starting with Giles and Elisa’s work friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and continuing through Shannon’s depiction of masculinity at its most malevolent and toxic, the message of “The Shape of Water” comes through too loud and too clear, as Elisa and her band of outsiders suffer under the yoke of homophobia, racism, intimidation and self-righteous intolerance. (At one point, when he’s talking about God with Zelda, Strickland suggests that “He looks like me — maybe even you. But probably more like me.”)
Amid such obviousness, Hawkins’s portrayal of Elisa stands out with gemlike beauty, her pie-faced plainness cracking into a radiant pirate’s smile that speaks volumes without a word. “The Shape of Water” gives audiences a second chance to see Hawkins at her best this year (she delivered an equally accomplished, physically demanding performance in “Maudie”), this time in a role that draws on such icons as Maria Falconetti and Giulietta Masina for its expressive power, emotional connection and, often, surprisingly raw sensuality. 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.
R. At area theaters. Contains sexuality, graphic nudity, violence and coarse language. 118 minutes.