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Guillermo del Toro’s new movie, both a political thriller and an interspecies love story, is one of 2017’s best


Sally Hawkins (left) with Octavia Spencer // Credit: Photo Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

When I saw The Shape of Water at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, it was easy to succumb so completely to the brilliant and lavishly rich spectacle composed by director/co-writer Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) that you could minimize the timely political message woven into the film — even though del Toro had made no effort to hide his intentions.

The narrative details the experiences of a woman named Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), who cannot speak but is watchful and soulful. In the early 1960s, during the Cold War, she has a job as a custodian in a secret government laboratory. There, she discoverers a creature is being held.

She sees an injustice being committed against this amphibian entity (Doug Jones, in a costume reminiscent of an updated version of The Creature from the Black Lagoon), which can only be perceived by us as an Other. She immediately senses the inherent humanity in the creature and falls for him. He responds to her pure beauty.

She bands together with a black co-worker (Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer) and her closeted gay neighbor to liberate him. They receive aid from a soulful Soviet spy (Michael Stuhlbarg) in their fight against an authoritarian figure played by Michael Shannon.

As you can see, del Toro is not ambiguous in the least. He traffics in fairy tales for adults, reminding us that sometimes mature audiences need things explained to them in the most blunt, straightforward ways, even if the stories happen to be set in the world of the metaphoric or the fantastic.

Too often, we see evil or injustice and fail to challenge it because the circumstances don’t impact our lives directly. We wait, assuming that someone else will step in or step up and then, possibly, we will lend our vocal support once it’s safe.

That’s the genius of the character of Elisa. She might be voiceless, but she leads the choir. There is a boldness that del Toro layers into the character. Alone and longing for connection, Elisa never shies away from her needs and desires. She is a sensual being, in touch with her sexual self and eager to take flight in the dance sequences of the old black-and-white musicals she adores.

Hawkins perfectly slips into this narrative creation. She has one of the most expressive faces and bodies in film. In life, I like to say I meet people with “something going on behind their eyes.” There is a level of activity and intention in their stillness. With Hawkins, there also is a glow that lights her from the inside, radiating outward. Her eyes caress whatever passes before them, and we feel their touch, even through the camera. In Mike Leigh’s 2008 Happy-Go-Lucky, for which she won rave notices, she embodied pure happiness and optimism.

In The Shape of Water, del Toro uses her aura as a special effect, a sleight-of-hand tool in his already extensive arsenal to manipulate us. And make no mistake, this is unadulterated manipulation. Hawkins is nearly childlike in her allure. But at the same time, the story never lets us forget that she is playing a full-bodied woman.

That’s what elevates The Shape of Water beyond mere fairy tale. She is not some idealized damsel or a princess-in-waiting. Rather, Elisa is a hungry seeker, searching for meaning. And in this nameless amphibian lover, she gets both an inspiring cause to champion and a shot at love.

The film portrays the rise of a collective movement, an intersectional coming together, that while not perfect — Spencer’s narrative as a black woman of the times never achieves distinct focus or shape — shows what might happen if marginalized folks find common purpose.

I love how del Toro trusts his audience, which means he’s willing and daringly able to offer us a dizzying marriage of the sensual and also possible salvation. He recalls Prince, a multi-hyphenate performer who took our souls down to the tempting waters of sin and baptized us in that hot pool before raising us up. No one else has more definitively planted one foot on the side of salvation and the other in sinful quicksand, but del Toro makes a strong case for being a spiritual cousin to that dearly beloved (and departed) “Sexy MF.” (Opens Friday.) (R) Grade: A