The Shape Of Water is a magnificent fable with sharp teeth

Guillermo del Toro’s story about a lonely woman and a monster is a beautiful, subversive film

THE SHAPE OF WATER (Guillermo del Toro). 123 minutes. Some subtitles. Opens Friday (December 8). See listing. Rating: NNNNN

The Shape Of Water is a beautiful love story, a chamber piece about a lonely young woman who finds her ideal partner in the most unusual of circumstances: she is a cleaner working nights at a high-security research facility in Baltimore, and he is the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Guillermo del Toro’s lyrical new movie draws upon classic horror-film imagery but utterly subverts the themes and tones of the old movies, focusing on different elements within the frame and letting us consider the humanity of the monster. It’s a fable, but like Pan’s Labyrinth, it’s a fable with teeth.

Set in 1962, it focuses on characters who would exist in the margins of most studio horror films: mute Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), her African-American co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), Elisa’s lonely gay neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) and Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a scientist with a different sort of double life. 

The real beast is Strickland (Michael Shannon), who runs security at the facility. He lives in suburbia and drives a nice car, he says all the right things about Jesus and he is not a nice person at all. It’s no wonder the monster, played by del Toro’s regular creature performer Doug Jones, makes a connection with Elisa instead of his captors.

I’m reluctant to discuss the plot beyond that, because the way del Toro glides from scene to scene, letting the characters learn to trust one another and reveal themselves, is the most wonderful thing about the picture. Elisa can’t speak and neither can the creature, so they bond over sign language – the first words she teaches him are “egg” and “music” – and build a tentative friendship. 

The movie works the same way, edging slowly toward asking us to take a mighty big leap – and by the time we get there, I was more than willing to go with it and see where we land. Others might not be it’s their loss.

There aren’t many filmmakers operating at this scale who put as much trust in their audience as del Toro does, and in a way this film is a direct response to vapid studio blockbusters like this summer’s reboot of The Mummy – feckless, empty products that ask nothing of you but your money and time. 

The Shape Of Water reaches out, hoping you’ll reach back. Just take care not to cut yourself on its claws.

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