• by Wes Singleton

The Shape of Water, A

Rated R, 123 minutes

The superb new fantasy thriller "The Shape of Water," from acclaimed director Guillermo Del Toro, is rich with beauty, unconventional love and power. Unlike some of Del Toro's other films, this is less horror and filled with striking and haunting poignancy, marking one of Del Toro's most original films to date.

Elisa ("Blue Jasmine's" Sally Hawkins, excellent) is a mute, isolated woman who works as a cleaning lady in a hidden, high-security government laboratory in 1962 Baltimore. Her life changes forever when she discovers the lab's classified secret -- a mysterious, scaled creature known as the Asset (Doug Jones from many of Del Toro's films, most notably "Pan's Labyrinth") from South America that lives in a water tank. As Elisa develops a unique bond with her new friend, she soon learns that its fate and very survival lies in the hands of a hostile government agent and a marine biologist.

The superbly acted, richly satisfying "The Shape of Water" is one of the year's most original films and a big change of pace for Del Toro, whose films are usually much darker and bloodier. There are some dark issues at work here too, but this is a character-driven drama that is remarkably touching, funny and scary. It's grounded by British character actress Hawkins, who will most certainly contend for the Best Actress Oscar as the mute Elisa; she does a terrific job of acting with her face and body, and in one of the film's best scenes, cusses out another character in sign language.

She's well supported a stellar cast of players, many of whom may also find themselves competing for awards, including Jones, who's touching as the Asset (or Amphibious Man) underneath that suit; Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer as Elisa's chatty, funny friend Zelda, who provides film's most comical moments; Oscar-nominee Michael Shannon, terrific as another villain he's accustomed to playing; Michael Stuhlbarg ("The Post") as a compassionate fellow scientist who's also a spy, and a very touching Richard Jenkins as Elisa's neighbor and closest ally.

"The Shape of Water" is also a memorable technical achievement, with some first-rate special effects, make-up and production design, with heavy, symbolic use of the color green. There are some nice touches as Del Toro pays homage to 1960's television and movies, and it's nicely photographed by "Crimson Peak's" Dan Laustsen.

It goes on a tad too long and there are a couple of uneven, misplaced scenes (a song-and-dance scene and a cat meeting an unfortunate end), but for the most part, "The Shape of Water" is a beautiful, lovely tribute to the power of love, on dry land or in water, and it won't leave you water-logged. A haunting and beautiful film, it will stay with you after you leave the theater.

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