'Shape of Water': Could Guillermo del Toro's sci-fi romance clean up this awards season?

In The Shape of Water Sally Hawkins, nominated for a Golden Globe, stars as a woman who falls in love with a close relative of the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

And not in some chaste, metaphoric, Beauty and the Beast kind of way. Nothing about their attraction is watered down. They fall for each other hook, line and sinker. To say that things go swimmingly is an understatement. They …

OK, I’ll stop now, reluctantly, but the point is that Guillermo del Toro’s strange new film, though pitched as a fable, earns its R rating. It’s candid about the sex lives of its characters, and delves also into racism, sexual harassment, and other adult themes.

Hawkins stars as Elisa, a lonely woman who works on the cleaning staff at a government laboratory where white-smocked scientists investigate various top-secret phenomena. One day the facility receives a new “asset,’ an aquatic creature captured in South America, kept in an aquarium that might have been designed by Jules Verne (but was actually designed by Paul D. Austerberry, whose sets and evocation of 1962 Baltimore are a strong feature throughout).

Del Toro initially keeps the creature from our view, concealed by layers of glass and algae. When the curious Elisa puts her hand on the glass surface of the tank, we see webbed fingers answer on the other side.

Scientists study the creature with clinical indifference, and learn little. It’s Elisa, offering to share her lunch, leaving eggs on the rim of the tank, playing Benny Goodman and Alice Faye on a record player, who draws the creature out. A secretive researcher (Michael Stuhlbarg) watches from the shadows, and learns through Elisa that the creature is capable of language, of emotion, perhaps, of the highest order.

Elisa is mute, a detail (we’re told) that explains her affinity for the outcast, and also gives her scenes with the creature (played, in a body suit, by Doug Jones), their silent-movie appeal — Elisa has a ready-made symbolic language that aids in communication, and gives del Toro room to portray the romance as a kind of dance.

This complements del Toro’s homage to the power of cinema — Elisa lives on top of a movie house, and the music and words filter through to her empty apartment, where she plans to stash the creature after freeing him from the lab.

All of these elements combine in del Toro’s most ambitious sequence, one that expresses Elisa’s feelings in an imaginary musical, the two lovers dancing cheek-to-gill in front of a black-tie orchestra.

Hawkins (so good also this year in Maudie)  is the expressive centerpiece of del Toro’s ornate compositions, but she’s not the only talented performer here. Richard Jenkins (another Golden Globe nominee) plays her neighbor — as chatty as she is quiet. His amusing monologues fill up the spaces left by Elisa’s condition — a dynamic that repeats itself at the lab, where Elisa’s friend is played by Octavia Spencer, also Globe-nominated.

Then there’s Michael Shannon, the granite faced Man in Black, a government heavy who wants the creature dissected. The role is unsubtle — the man is racist, sexist, a snob, and a sadist. Shannon keeps the role from becoming a cartoon.

And del Toro somehow manages to keep the deeply weird mash-up of ideas and images coherent, unified by style and mood. Shout out to composer Alexandre Desplat, whose music points always toward enchantment and hope, no matter who is being shot or tortured.

MOVIES

The Shape of Water

  • Directed by Guillermo del Toro. With Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Doug Jones, Michael Shannon and Michael Stuhlbarg. Distributed by Fox Searchlight.
  • Run time: 2 hours, 3 mins.
  • Parents guide: R (adult themes)
  • Playing at: Area theaters.