The Shape of Water Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins. Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Rated R. Opens Friday in select theaters.
A mute woman falling in love with a sea monster sounds like the storyline for a B-movie that would get mocked on Mystery Science Theater 3000, not a sensitive and visually accomplished fantasy drama with a real shot at winning a bunch of Oscars. But in The Shape of Water, director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro manages to turn that premise into something beautiful and occasionally moving, if not quite as emotionally rich as it aims to be.
Set in 1962, Water stars Sally Hawkins as the mute Elisa, part of the housekeeping staff at a secret government facility in Baltimore, the kind of place that seems to employ exclusively mad scientists. Their latest find is an aquatic creature pulled from the depths of South America that looks a little like a more detailed and lifelike version of the title character of Creature From the Black Lagoon. Played by del Toro monster favorite Doug Jones, the humanoid amphibian has expressive eyes and movements, and while it can’t speak, it forms a bond with Elisa based on shared outsider status and the lonely woman’s extension of simple kindness.
That’s in contrast to the sadistic Col. Strickland (Michael Shannon), who views the creature as an abomination to be dissected and destroyed, used only for what advantages it can give to the U.S. military. With the help of her equally lonely painter neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a closeted gay man, Elisa hatches a plan to rescue the creature and set it free. She’s more than just sympathetic to a mistreated animal, though; they obviously have a romantic and sexual connection, which del Toro eventually makes explicitly clear, but the romantic aspect of the story is never as convincing or engaging as it should be.
Jones and the makeup and effects teams make the creature empathetic, but it takes more than that to build a believable love story, and all the prosthetics in the world can’t match up to Hawkins’ performance. Shannon plays the same casually cruel villain he has played in numerous past productions, and Octavia Spencer does her best with the stereotypical role of Elisa’s sassy, supportive best friend and co-worker.
If the story and the character work don’t quite come together, del Toro remains a master of style and atmosphere, and the detail in every setting, from the dank laboratory to Elisa’s beautifully crumbling apartment, is intricate and inviting. Both Elisa and Giles are fans of classic cinema, living in apartments above a vintage movie house, and at one point del Toro even pauses for an old-school dance number. Water is full of stylish moments like that, lovely to behold but a bit too precious and composed to stir much more than admiration.