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Richard Crouse: The Shape of Water is a creature-feature ripe with romance, thrills and empathy for all

Guillermo del Toro’s flights of fancy, and the richly drawn characters on screen, deliver a dreamy slice of pure cinema.

Sally Hawkins, left, standing alongside Octavia Spencer, plays a woman rendered mute by childhood abuse in The Shape of Water.

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Sally Hawkins, left, standing alongside Octavia Spencer, plays a woman rendered mute by childhood abuse in The Shape of Water.

Set in Cold War-era Baltimore, The Shape of Water sees Sally Hawkins as Elisa, a woman rendered mute by childhood abuse. A cleaner in a military laboratory and storage facility, she communicates through sign language with co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and best friend and neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins). When a mysterious Gill Man, held captive in a giant water-filled iron lung, is brought in the cleaners are told to keep their distance.

Elisa, however, bonds with the beast. After hours, when everyone else has gone home, she stays behind, playing music for the creature, performing dance moves learned from old movies and feeding him her special hard-boiled eggs. They click. She relates to him being unable to speak. “He doesn’t know what I lack,” she signs to Giles. “He sees me for what I am. As I am. He’s happy to see me.” He responds to her gentle nature.

His captors feel differently. They see him — “The Asset” they call him — as a case study, ripe for vivisection so they can discover how he can breathe on land and underwater. Everyone except for Elisa, it seems, wants The Asset dead.

When Elisa discovers a hard-nosed coiled-ball-of-rage named Colonel Strickland (Michael Shannon) is torturing the beast, she hatches a catch-and-release plan. Steal the creature, hide him until the next rainstorm fills a nearby canal and set him free.

The tale of intrigue takes a romantic turn when Elisa begins to regard The Asset as more man than monster.

The Shape of Water is a dreamy slice of pure cinema. Director Guillermo del Toro uses the stark Cold War backdrop as a canvas to draw warm and vivid portraits of his characters. Elisa and Giles are an unconventional family, outsiders in a world that values conformity.

Zelda is a feisty and funny presence — “I can handle pee,” she says, mop in hand cleaning up one of The Asset’s messes. “I can handle poo. But blood? That does something awful to me.” — while the creature is an empathic being with soulful eyes who glows with blue light when he is happy.

The combination of characters and del Toro’s flights of fancy is not only a love letter to the movies — Giles and Elisa live above a movie theatre, watch old musicals on TV and there’s even an Old Hollywood fantasy sequence inside the story — but a Valentine to why we fell in love with the movies in the first place. It’s a feast for the eyes and the heart.

At the centre of it all are Hawkins and Doug Jones as The Asset. Both, one nakedly emotional, the other hidden away under layers of makeup, wouldn’t be out of place in a silent movie. The fantasy elements of the story swirl around but Hawkins’ delicate but steely presence (aided by Jenkins’ heartfelt and occasionally heartbreaking loyalty) grounds the story in reality. Jones, though covered in scales and gills, uses his physicality to project the character’s power and vulnerability.

In the story’s thriller section, Shannon provides a villain whose gangrenous fingers are a metaphor for the rot in his soul. In the actor’s hands, Strickland is as cold as the blood that runs through the creature’s veins.

Wound tightly together these elements combine to form a beautiful creature-feature ripe with romance, thrills and, above all, empathy for all.

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