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Movie review: Guillermo del Toro’s ‘Shape of Water’ captivates

Who says fairy tales are just for kids? Oscar-winning producer, director and screenwriter Guillermo del Toro proves they are anything but with “The Shape of Water.”

The plot — a “princess without voice” falling for an amphibious man held captive in a Cold War-era government lab — admittedly sounds a bit cuckoo. But as del Toro proved with “Pan’s Labyrinth,” he is a master at making heartfelt gothic tales involving monsters and broken humans. And there’s no denying those heartfelt elements are why “The Shape of Water” is exploding with Oscar buzz.

The story is a marvelous mashup of espionage thriller, romantic drama, creature feature and period picture. There’s even a full-blown black-and-white musical number. But the emotional core is its love story, which del Toro renders so beautiful and poignant that it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. You’ll experience the feels, for sure.

Set in 1960s Baltimore, Sally Hawkins delivers a pure, wordless performance as Elisa, a mute cleaning woman who falls head over heels for the mysterious fishman (longtime del Toro collaborator Doug Jones) chained up inside the top-secret government facility that employs her. After hours, she lives in a sparse apartment over a bygone movie house. Her best friend is next-door neighbor Giles (a fantastic Richard Jenkins), a talented artist struggling with his sexuality. Their friendship alone is worth its own movie.

Elisa is very much content to be a creature of habit — wake, wash, eat, work and repeat. Or, she is until this mysterious “asset” arrives like a breath of fresh air in her simple existence. After a few clandestine meetings with the creature, Elisa has a newfound spring in her step. Hawkins (also terrific in this year’s “Maudie”) is amazing, conveying more emotion in one glance or gesture than others do with full voice. Put her down for an Oscar nomination.

Del Toro further demonstrates his savvy by surrounding her with an excellent supporting cast that includes Octavia Spencer as Elisa’s sassy, funny, charming and super-chatty partner-in-crime on the overnight shift. Then there’s a towering Michael Shannon — he’s 6-foot-3 — as Strickland, the villainous and paranoid ex-soldier in charge of minding the “asset” by ruling with fear and a cattle prod. And last, but not least, there’s the ubiquitous Michael Stuhlbarg (he’s also in the Oscar-contenders “The Post” and “Call Me by Your Name”) as the unassuming scientist in charge, Robert Hoffstetler.

Behind the scenes, del Toro receives terrific assists from Alexandre Desplat’s sweeping score and Dan Laustsen’s gorgeous cinematography, which creates jewel-toned (red, cyan, green) saturated visuals where no detail is too small. For example, Elisa’s apartment is bathed in shades of cyan, which connects her to the water.

Lessons lurk within the layers of all fairy tales, and “The Shape of Water” is no different with its message about overcoming prejudice and fear toward the people society marginalizes, and how people fall in love in mysterious ways. The characters convey very complex emotions, but del Toro keeps the narrative simple. It’s simply stunning work on every level.

— Dana Barbuto may be reached at dbarbuto@ledger.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.

“The Shape of Water”

Cast: Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg.

(R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language.)

Grade: A