Guillermo del Toro is versatile enough to toggle between politically pointed fantasy (Pan's Labyrinth) and big crowd-pleasing mayhem (Pacific Rim). In his new film, a lovely, modern fable called The Shape of Water, he finds perfect balance between warmth and precision, the otherworldly and the mundane. It's a finely calibrated film, brimming with romance, excitement and humanity.
Del Toro has always had a soft spot for monsters; seek out the traveling exhibition "Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters," now in Toronto, and you'll see the full scope of his passion. In Water, he makes the creature, an amphibious man awash in ridges, scales and gills, the romantic lead. It's 1962, and we're in a secret military lab in Baltimore. The Cold War is getting hot, and the creature, captured in South America and deemed a valuable "asset," is a potential weapon. That's how the brass sees it anyway. To Elisa (a sublime Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaning lady who works the night shift at the facility, he's her soul mate. It's like The Creature From the Black Lagoon, with the creature as the love interest.
The film has great fun with the period, the anxious, promising brink of the space age. Elisa lives in a flat above a movie palace, where her neighbor (Richard Jenkins), outcast as a gay man, toils as a graphic artist on a campaign for Jell-O. "The Future is Here!" blares the ad copy. The bad guy — the real monster — is the man in charge of the facility, a sadistic conformist played by Michael Shannon. He, too, wants a taste of the future. So he buys a fancy teal Cadillac, an aerodynamic beauty to encase his empty spirit. It's the outcasts that band together here — a mute woman, a black woman, a gay man and a guy with gills.
These are the kinds of details that bring del Toro's vision to life. He's always been a master of visual flourishes. Here he weds these touches to an intensely romantic sensibility. This is a monster movie that makes you want to dance and fall in love. It's whimsical but never overly cute. It has a keen sense of humor, much of it supplied by Octavia Spencer as Elisa's colleague and confidant, and a brisk pace. It's a romantic adventure for grown-ups. And it has a really cool, highly expressive creature, played by Doug Jones, a del Toro regular.
Del Toro has always had a knack for placing the fantastical in specific times and places; witness Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone, both set amid the carnage of the Spanish Civil War. He uses fantasy to draw out the perils of reality, and to examine the darkness that lies in the shadows of official stories. But even those shadows are great fun. Magic is rarely far in a del Toro film, and for my money, The Shape of Water is his most magical film to date.
It's also his most mature and frankly sexual, and for this we must give a fair amount of credit to Hawkins, an English actress who has graced many a movie by the social realist filmmaker Mike Leigh. She never utters a word, save for a transcendent moment that won't be revealed here, but her comfort in her own body is stunning, and when you least expect it she deploys an upper lip that suggests a naughty awareness of the film's sensuality.
The Shape of Water is a movie that loves movies (and TV), from the marquee attractions at that downstairs theater (Mardi Gras and The Story of Ruth) to the snippets we see on a black-and-white television of Mister Ed (in a clip where he mulls his own space adventure), The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis and Carmen Miranda singing "Chica Chica Boom Chic." The film is del Toro's love letter to cinema, to monsters, and to romance. It's not hard to love it back.
The Shape of Water (A)
R (for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and nudity). 123 minutes. Playing at area theaters.