I don’t love “Pacific Rim” or “Crimson Peak,” Guillermo del Toro’s two most recent (outside this film) directorial efforts. I think that both movies have things to recommend them and are, at minimum, beautiful to watch unfold, but I find the story in both lacking. This same cannot be said for del Toro’s latest, “The Shape of Water.” The new film is a surprising, emotional, journey wrapped around a great tale and with some wonderful performances.

“The Shape of Water” stars Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito, a mute night cleaner in a secret government laboratory. Elisa has a simple life. She lives by herself over a failing movie theater, but has a friend next door in Giles (Richard Jenkins), an aging artist who works on ad campaigns. Elisa’s only other friend is her coworker, Zelda (Octavia Spencer). No one would suggest that it is enough, but as we see, Elisa makes due.

Del Toro beautifully offers up even the most mundane aspects of this quiet life, quickly giving the audience the ins and outs of her existence. We see Elisa to be a kind, gentle, loving soul, and seemingly a lonely one as well.

Of course, things can’t stay so simple for Elisa—there’s no movie in that—and so one night at work a secretive agent, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), arrives with some sort of dangerous creature in tow. Although (or perhaps because) the government agents by and large treat the creature poorly, Elisa soon falls in love with him.

In the hands of another director this all might come off as foolish nonsense, but del Toro treats Elisa and this love in perfect, delicate, fashion. Those early scenes establishing Elisa’s existence cause us to have great sympathy for her, to feel as though we truly understand her, and so when she finds another lonely soul in the creature, we more than accept it – we cheer for them in the face of incredible adversity.

What we get for our enthusiasm is an exceptional film, one that is more than comfortable straddling multiple genres – it is romance and horror, musical and comedy, fantasy and period piece.  There are moments when Del Toro’s camera and storytelling are lyrical in nature, deftly bobbing from one thing to the next, gently pulling the audience along for the ride. Then there are moments which shock and disgust, and Shannon’s Strickland is no small part of these. The actor, who has already proven his ability to portray engrossing villains does so again here, giving us multiple sides of this government agent and family man, making us both laugh at and fear the character.

Spencer, too, is wholly engrossing as Zelda. She is a strong woman who has struggles all her own, but still manages to do the right thing by her friend. She is a woman with a good moral compass and Spencer offers her as a woman whom we could all only hope but meet in our lives.

Something similar can be side of Giles, who is struggling with his sexuality in 1960s America. No matter the difficulties he faces, however, he too knows the value of friendship and shares his life, and home, with Elisa who, in turn, also cares deeply for him.

In effect, what del Toro has created via Zelda and Giles is a family for Elisa. They are not the traditional sort of family, perhaps, but they are always there for her, they look after her (not that she is incapable), and offer advice. They also support her as she falls deeply in love with the creature and help her various machinations. The three form a circle of friendship which cannot be broken.

It strikes me that we haven’t talked very much about Hawkins’ portrayal itself. It is a largely non-verbal role, but Hawkins has no trouble whatsoever not just making herself understood, but of drawing the audience close to her, of making Elisa one of the most sympathetic characters on screen this year. Elisa’s emotions more than feel real, they come tearing out of the screen and grab the audience.

These characters, who are more than simple movie characters, help propel the audience in this story of love between a woman and a creature. It is a wholly improbable affair, but because the characters are well-written and equally well brought to life, the love story becomes believable. Certainly, we in the audience want to believe it and del Toro allows us to, no matter how many twists and turns and Russian side plots may appear.

Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” isn’t just an incredibly gripping, wonderful, multi-faceted story; it isn’t just a film that is told in beautiful fashion; it isn’t just a film that works through multiple genres without ever feeling forced into them; it isn’t just a film with three dimensional characters and heartfelt performances; it is, instead, all of these things. It is a film which is emotional and intellectual, engrossing and horrifying. It is outside the box and completely within the norm. It is a must see film.

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photo credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures