By now, many know of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro’s Bleak House, the name he has given his museum-sized collection of horror-related paraphernalia.
It’s telling that he loves his monsters so. Many who feel they don’t fit in anywhere identify with monsters — not just attacking, murderous things, but figures like King Kong or Frankenstein’s creation, outcasts that have souls and just want to live.
Del Toro probably isn’t even capable of telling a monster story that isn’t somehow connected to the human condition, and his “The Shape of Water” is perhaps his loveliest film so far, easily on par with his masterpiece “Pan’s Labyrinth.”
His dear, sweet heroine, Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is also something of an outcast, unable to speak and spending most of her free time with her next-door neighbor, commercial artist Giles (Richard Jenkins).
It’s around 1962, a good time for monsters. Elisa works the night shift, cleaning an aerospace research center with her good friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who talks enough for the both of them.
One night, Elisa discovers “the asset,” a man-sized, water-dwelling creature (Doug Jones) that seems to have been captured and imprisoned. She senses an immediate connection with him, and begins sneaking in to visit him, bringing hard-boiled eggs and playing records for him.
The creature’s barbaric captor, Strickland (Michael Shannon) occasionally shows up to beat it into submission. (The creature rips off Strickland’s fingers in one scene.)
Elisa decides to free him, keep him in her bathtub, and eventually release him. A friendly scientist, Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), doesn’t want the creature killed and dissected, and opts to help.
It may be a little shocking to learn that Elisa and “the asset” fall in love, but del Toro treats the material so gently and so respectfully that it seems perfectly natural.
Their relationship is not perfect — the creature chomps the head off of one of Giles’ cats — but what relationship is?
Del Toro takes time out to show comparisons. Strickland has coarse sex with his wife, shoving his bandaged hand in her face. Zelda’s husband is chronically ineffective, and Giles unsuccessfully flirts with the pie counter guy.
Like “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “The Shape of Water” is largely structured like a fairy tale. Del Toro makes sure it has the beautiful, fanciful visual style to match, frosted with Alexandre Desplat’s airy music.
Water is important, of course, from a force for life, to a force for destruction (boiling and/or flooding). The color green — a bit of life just out of reach, but still there — sneaks in, too.
At the center of it all is Elisa, and Hawkins’ selfless, wondrous portrayal, somehow connecting with Jones’ creature. Previously appearing as Abe Sapien in del Toro’s “Hellboy” films and the Fauno in “Pan’s Labyrinth,” Jones gives a poetic performance in mime.
“The Shape of Water” is a perfectly constructed poem, falling somewhere between rage and ache and finding beauty. It’s a movie for all the monsters out there.
The Shape of Water
Three and a half stars
Starring Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer
Written by Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Running time 2 hours, 3 minutes