Guillermo del Toro's "The Shape of Water" is like a beautiful painting you keep visiting at your favorite museum because it continues to reveal its brilliant magic in new and different ways.
Set in 1962, this is a gorgeously color-coordinated fairy tale. Del Toro's use of the color green alone is a wonder to behold, whether we're taken aback by the almost neon glow of a piece of key lime pie, chuckling at the bright green shade of a plate of jiggling gelatin dessert, taking in the suitably aqua-tinged colors of the protagonist's apartment, or appreciating the hue of a brand-new Cadillac.
"That's not green; that's teal," says the slick salesman in the Cadillac showroom. "It's the color of the future."
So much of this film is about the clash of the past and the future, with America on the doorstep of a new, exciting and tumultuous age, but with one foot still firmly stuck in the past, battling the Russians at every turn, always looking for the upper hand. And what the general public doesn't know won't hurt them.
"The Shape of Water" is a Cold War-era "Beauty and the Beast" (with echoes of "The Creature From the Black Lagoon," among other films). It takes place in the drab and yet somehow also electric Baltimore of the early 1960s, and it is a film that dares to be almost silly in its unabashed movie-style romanticism, and to the great credit of the writer-director and the wonderful cast, it succeeds at almost every turn.
Sally Hawkins, as fine an actor as you'll see working these days, gives a sweet and funny and lovely and moving performance as Elisa, a mute dreamer who works the overnight shift as a maid in a top-secret government facility and falls in love with a mysterious sea creature that was captured in the Amazon and is now being held in shackles, tortured and prepped for execution and vivisection.
Actually, for being such a top-secret government lab, the Occam Corp., as it's known (a reference to Occam's Razor?), is kind of lax on the whole security thing.
So without much interference, Elisa is able to strike up a friendship with Amphibian Man (Doug Jones). That may sound bizarre because it IS bizarre, but considering Elisa was an orphan whose throat was slashed as a baby, and who then was found literally floating in a river, perhaps she feels an innate kinship with the Amphibian Man.
Oh, but of course there are complications.
Michael Stuhlbarg is Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, a sympathetic scientist with a complicated backstory. Is he friend or foe?
Then there's Michael Shannon's Richard Strickland, the gung-ho G-man in charge of security.
Elisa has a couple of allies: her fellow maid, Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) and her across-the-hall neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins, simply terrific), a closeted, alcoholic advertising artist with a passion for watching glorious old black-and-white movies — particularly musicals — on TV.
And oh how those old movie clips play a role in later sequences in "The Shape of Water." (This is a movie that loves so many different kinds of movies.)
As "The Shape of Water" becomes a tick-tock thriller, with Elisa and her team desperate to save Amphibian Man and nefarious forces hell-bent on destroying him, I can't say I was swept up in the love story. I found myself admiring and appreciating this film more than falling in love with it.
But I can certainly understand how this story will score a bull's-eye to many a heart. It's one of the most romantic and most breathtakingly beautiful movies of the year.