Director Guillermo Del Toro loves to ride that line between wondrous fantasy and harsh reality — and in the sensual woman-meets-monster tale “The Shape of Water,” he creates a dreamscape of wonder and peril for grown-ups.
British actor Sally Hawkins plays Eliza Esposito, a solitary woman in a rundown apartment over a Baltimore movie house, circa 1962. She grew up an orphan, mute since she was a baby, and works as a cleaning woman in a shadowy government-run facility. Her only friends are Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer), who works with her at the lab, and her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins), a lovelorn illustrator who lives with several cats.
One day, Eliza and Zelda are summoned to clean up one of the facility’s laboratories, where some blood has been spilled. Inside, Eliza becomes fascinated with a tank in which swims a humanoid amphibian (performed by Doug Jones, a frequent collaborator of Del Toro’s, having done movement work in “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Hellboy II”).
Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the surly government operative who captured the creature — whom he calls only “the asset” — and got two fingers bitten off for his troubles, is determined to learn its secrets. He’ll do it by either torturing the creature or dissecting it, over the objections of the lab’s lead scientist, Robert Hofstadter (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is soon revealed to us to be a Soviet operative.
Eliza soon discovers that the creature is intelligent and kind, when he’s not being tortured by Strickland. She brings him hard-boiled eggs to eat and jazz music to listen to. And when she learns about Strickland’s plans to kill the creature, she devises a desperate plan to help him escape.
In a lesser melodrama, that escape would be the movie’s exciting climax. But Del Toro and co-screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (“Divergent,” “Hope Springs”) have more to say, adding romantic and sexual tension between these two lonely characters divided by water but united by love. Del Toro establishes Eliza’s sexual longing during the opening credits, and neither Hawkins nor the film shies away from it.
Hawkins — so good in “Blue Jasmine” and “Maudie,” among others — is beautifully expressive here, conveying with a look or her insistent sign language the swirl of emotions Eliza is experiencing in this unlikely romance. Like Jones, a graceful physical actor, Hawkins shows us Eliza’s heart without uttering a word.
Some of the plot machinations of “The Shape of Water,” such as the Cold War intrigue and Shannon’s cartoonish villain, don’t live up to the magic Hawkins and Jones conjure in their scenes together. When they share the screen, on land or in water, their passion washes over the audience like a cleansing rain.
★★★ 1/2<br>The Shape of Water<br>A mute cleaning woman meets a rare amphibious creature in director Guillermo Del Toro’s sensuous fantasy romance for grown-ups.<br>Where • Area theaters.<br>When • Opens Friday, Dec. 15.<br>Rating • R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language.<br>Running time • 123 minutes.